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Outback in bloom as floodwaters travel hundreds of kilometers into Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre

It’s a special time in the outback and deserts of central Australia.

For many tourists, it is not the dust bowl they had in mind.

It’s hard to imagine the variety of wildflowers in these arid landscapes and Zippy says it’s blown her mind.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

Cairns local Zippy Warnecke is currently traveling through the region.

“When you think of the desert, you don’t expect any life to be there, but it’s full of it at the moment; flowers, animals — the whole lot,” she said.

Across large parts of outback Queensland and the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Basin, unseasonal Autumn rain has left carpets of wildflowers and greenery.

“It’s not at all what I imagined — it’s so much better,” Ms Warnecke said.

Two children wearing bright pink shirts star jump surrounded by bright yellow flowers.
Wildflowers have emerged from the arid landscapes after recent rains.(Supplied: RLR Photography)

Months in the making

Floodwaters from rain months ago have moved through free-flowing rivers in the Channel Country into the illustrious Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in northern South Australia.

An aerial view of a flock of pelicans landing on a body of brown water.
Flooding transforms arid landscapes into rivers teeming with birdlife like pelicans.(Supplied: Wrights Air)

“This is just an amazing time when these floods start going down these big Channel Country rivers,” said University of New South Wales professor of environmental science Richard Kingsford.

“Lake Eyre gets water every couple of years, but a really big filling doesn’t happen that often.

“In terms of surface area, probably 70 or 80 per cent of Lake Eyre has water in it … that’s a pretty rare event.”

A satellite image shows Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre full with a blue body of water in the middle of desert country.
Satellite view of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in late July, 2022.(Supplied: Digital Earth Australia)
Satellite view of a dry Lake Eyre on January 9, 2022.
Satellite view of a dry Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre on January 9, 2022.(Supplied: SentielHub)

Hundreds of kilometers from any coastline, the Lake Eyre Yacht Club has seen members and tourists take to the waters of the Warburton River, which feeds into Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.

“That is an adventure in its own right. It’s a 440km return trip from where we launch,” Commodore Bob Backway said.

“When you get to the lake you can sail about 6km before you run aground.”

Pilots are reporting an increase in inquiries and bookings to see Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre and surrounding river systems while conditions are “spectacular”.

A plane flies over Kati Thanda lake Eyre and the water is hues of pink and blue against a blue sky and white clouds.
As Kati-Thanda-Lake Eyre begins to fill, the color of the water changes.(Supplied: Wrights Air)

“We’re starting to see lots of people plan their trips out now and the plans are going to Lake Eyre every day,” said Birdsville Aviation senior pilot Talia Ellis.

“Lake Eyre is over 170km north to south. People are absolutely gobsmacked at the sheer size of it.

“We give people perspective from down low so you can see the bird life—there are pelicans nesting on islands.

“We also give people the perspective from higher up as well, so they’ve got the perspective to pin it against the rest of the landscape.”

Water ‘a tonic’ for desert stations

Water flooding through an outback creek way creates intrinsic patterns through a brown landscape and green growth emerges around
Nappa Merrie station typically sees low rainfall and relies on Cooper Creek flooding.(Supplied: Nappa Merrie station)

At Nappa Merrie station on the SA border, Cooper Creek flooding has been vital.

The station relies on the flooding to grow feed for 11,000 cattle and to fill the 30,000-gallon (136,382-Litre) tank that provides running water to the family household.

“Just the last Christmas we were battling along with a few waterholes going dry and then we got a run in the river,” said station manager Peter Degoumois.

“It means a lot, really.

“It’ll hold us over summer pretty well and you can carry a lot of cattle.”

A man with gray hair and a blue shirt sits in front of an outback waterhole looking at the camera.
Richard Kingsford is a river ecologist and conservation biologist.(Supplied: UNSW)

Professor Kingsford, who has been researching the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Basin for decades, said there was a shift in community morale when the rivers were watered.

“It really is a fantastic tonic for those times of drought, which are really tough and getting tougher with climate change,” he said.

An aerial view of the greenery carpeting Cooper Creek.
An aerial view of the greenery carpeting Cooper Creek.(Supplied: Air Central West)

Researchers galore

Associate professor Tim Cohen from the University of Wollongong is a desert beach hunter on a mission to track the major lake-filling events of the past millennium.

The “double-dip” La Nina pattern has primed the landscape to trace weather extremes back to 10,000 years ago.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
The water finding its way to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre supports an abundance of life(Supplied: Timothy Cohen)

“I think one of the most exciting things we have discovered on this last field trip was… evidence of events as large, or larger than, 1974 in the recent past,” Mr Cohen said.

“We know there are cycles that drive drought and floods and by understanding how these manifest across the continent, we can see how anthropogenic global warming is influencing that.”

A recent aerial view of the edge of Belt Bay of Lake Eyre.
A recent aerial view of the edge of Belt Bay at Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.(Supplied: Moshe Armon/ETH Zurich)

To the north of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, the Kalamurina Sanctuary — a reserve at the intersection of three of Australia’s deserts — has been the location of a recent bird survey.

“The biggest benefit to the birds we found this survey is the rain we had earlier in the year,” said wildlife ecologist Keith Bellchambers.

“[We found] a lot of the smaller boom-and-bust species … we’ve had big flocks of diamond doves, zebra finches, budgerigars [and] cockatiels.

“Things like that have just increased enormously in number in the last six months just because of the food resources they’ve been able to find following that rain.

“It’s visually spectacular, but it’s also a spectacular soundscape.”

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