News from the Field

Fieldwork in floodwaters

04 Jun. 2023
Ariana La Porte/AWC

By Ariana La Porte, PhD candidate at Monash University

January 2nd, 2023. We had taken our radios to bed the night before, just as a precaution. The water was already up to the parking area, which was as high as anyone had ever seen it, and it was still raining. I dislike rain generally and resent the periodic floods of the Wet season because they wash away the nests we’ve found, but I was looking forward to sleeping past 3:45 am. It’s too dangerous to work along the creek when it’s raging, so storms give us a brief break from crack-of-dawn nest searching.

A male Purple-crowned Fairywren (Malurus coronatus coronatus). Brad Leue/AWC
A male Purple-crowned Fairywren (Malurus coronatus coronatus).

We were a month into a four-month field season at Mornington-Marion Downs Wildlife Sanctuary (Bunuba and Kija country), a conservation area in the Kimberley managed by Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). My research is part of a long-term study led by my supervisor, Anne Peters, from Monash University on a population of Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens (Malurus coronatus coronatus), an endangered riparian songbird endemic to Northwest Australia. I am studying how high temperature affects nestlings (surprise: it’s bad), and whether adults can provide protection by choosing cooler nest sites. Our four-person team was on-site with four AWC staff and we’d just gotten into the swing of the field season. I was naive about the potential impact of the storm, since heavy rain and floods are typical of the Wet in this region and are weathered every year. We’d stocked up on supplies for the four months the roads would be impassable, and I figured we’d be fine. The AWC crew had prepared for a potential flood given the low system moving towards us, moving things to higher ground, and securing loose items.

“All hands to Research” comes over the radio sometime after dawn. “That’s weird,” I thought, but wasn’t too concerned. “Research” is the research office, and I roll into a pair of shorts and slosh down. When I get there, the water has reached the steps. AWC staff had turned off the electricity and contacted managers off-site; started 2-hourly check-ins, and put an evacuation plan in place. We start moving everything from the lower cabinets to higher up, including the hundreds of herbarium samples that took decades to collect. We are almost finished when the water starts coming through the floorboards. We start moving things even higher, but we’re running out of room. I look out the sliding glass door and see half a meter of water held back behind it. Someone comes in and the water rises to our knees.

Standing on the kitchen porch assessing the rapidly rising water. Josh Guthrie/AWC
Standing on the kitchen porch assessing the rapidly rising water.

Operational switch: we need to get stuff out. Fast. Someone passes us a storage box through the window, and we start shoving things in. Luckily, we have a few dry bags, so I use them for the laptops, and remember to cram in the datasheets too. I’m sweeping off shelves and desks—the small stuff mostly fits—and the water is rising quickly. We pass the box back to someone in the waist-high water outside. I dump my Nalgene to lighten my backpack and hand it out too. The team is taking everything to the kitchen, which is on slightly higher ground. We work on the rest of the office, but soon the water is up to the windowsill and we have to get out.

As I wade through the teeming rain toward the kitchen 25 m away, I see someone in a pack raft, ferrying boxes. The AWC wildlife ecologist is on the porch staring out at camp. She’s wearing a life vest and her face is focused—she’s keeping us safe and rescuing data while her home of seven years goes completely underwater.

When I get to the kitchen it’s clear that this “safe” spot will be inundated. We float everything on a pack raft to the next highest building. On the way out I grab the board games, reasoning that we might need entertainment while stranded. Do I bring food? No. Drinking water? No. In fact, I realize later, I had dumped it out. But if you want to play Wingspan, I’ve got you covered.

Using packrafts to ferry equipment over the flood waters to a safe high point. Karen Young/AWC
Using packrafts to ferry equipment over the flood waters to a safe high point.

We pile onto the porch with everything we’ve rescued and sit, dripping, looking out at the rain. Nobody says much. After a while, we realize that this building will be submerged too, so we pack-raft everything to the very last house on this side of the creek. Nobody could have foreseen the magnitude of this flood—the amount of rain in the catchment has far exceeded the radar predictions—and we never imagined we’d need to retreat this far.

There is one structure higher than this one, but it’s half a kilometre away across the floodwater. We’d need something bigger than the pack rafts to get everything—and everyone—up there. A couple of people paddle over to the shed for some canoes, so we’ll be ready to cross if needed. When they return, they report that the water is up to the roof of the research office. My heart breaks for the herbarium.

The rain has gotten lighter by early evening but the water is still rising. The nearby Adcock River must have broken its banks; there’s no other way there could be this much water so quickly. AWC staff had stocked us up on food and fresh water at the evacuation point. I am grateful to be in such capable, professional hands, and feel safe despite the devastation. People start opening cans of spaghetti. The stove does work but we eat from the cans anyway. Nobody plays Wingspan.

We take shifts to monitor the water overnight. Thankfully it doesn’t swamp us and there is no need for the canoes. In the morning the sky has cleared some and we can call out on the satellite phone. A helicopter is dispatched but can’t make it until the next day because the storm is still dumping.

The high-water mark in the shower the morning after the flood. Gill Holmes/AWC
The high-water mark in the shower the morning after the flood.

By mid-morning the glutted river has started to drain, and the water has gone down several meters from its overnight high. There is a table floating around the lawn next to a chest freezer and the washing machines. The dishes on the highest kitchen shelves are eerily dry, but everything else is soggy and covered in reeking, slimy silt. We rescue frozen dumplings, hashbrowns, and spring rolls from an upturned freezer—luckily the seal held and no floodwater got inside. There is still plenty of canned food but everyone is tired of spaghetti and baked beans. That night we feast. We curl up on our stuff and tell stories in the dark, grateful that the rain has stopped.

The helicopter comes the next day, and we evacuate to Derby with a backpack each. I am impressed by AWC’s preparedness and efficient emergency response—we’ve been safe and well cared for throughout this whole ordeal. The view from above is arresting. The tree-lined riverbank is a small strip of green in a massive, muddy lake. I know the current must be insane, but you can’t tell from up here. Looking out, I feel sad, and a bit airsick. The ecosystem will recover in the short term, but how many more floods will breach these banks? How many droughts will follow? How many species will withstand this “new normal?” How many years until this landscape is unrecognizable?

View from the rescue chopper of the Adcock River surging well beyond its banks. Ariana La Porte/AWC
View from the rescue chopper of the Adcock River surging well beyond its banks.

The flood, caused by record-breaking ex-tropical cyclone Ellie, destroyed most of the infrastructure in the central Kimberley. This is hard on my PhD—climate change itself has made studying its effects more difficult—but it’s hardest for the people who lived out here, including many indigenous communities. For us, a season of data has been lost, but plans are underway to return. Hopefully next Wet season we’ll be waking up at 3:45 am daily to nest search again. In the meantime, at least I can play Wingspan.

This article was first published by the Ecological Society of Australia.

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