River scientist on TV assignment sees flooding pain and gain

Published 26 March 2010

kangaAustralia’s river scientists are watching the flooding of the Paroo, Warrego and Condamine River systems with great interest. “These river systems don’t conform to the textbooks,” said the University of New England’s Professor Martin Thoms. “We’re ‘writing our own textbook’ on how these highly variable river systems work.”

Professor Thoms, a leading authority on rivers, floodplains, lakes and wetlands in arid landscapes, believes that the behaviour of such systems will become even more variable under the influence of climate change.

“These floods in the Murray-Darling Basin are incredibly important in maintaining the resilience of Australia’s riverine landscape,” he said. “They will go some way to restoring the capacity of the river systems. There will be some short-term pain, but great medium-to-long-term benefit.

Last week, Professor Thoms witnessed some of the “pain” and assessed the massive gain when he travelled to the flooded areas with a camera crew from the Channel 9 current affairs program 60 Minutes. During the three-day trip he helped farmers rescue sheep while gaining a valuable insight into this once-in-a-hundred-years phenomenon. The flooding story – including Professor Thoms’s expert comments – will be broadcast on the 60 Minutes program this Sunday, 28 March, at 7.30 pm. After the program, people will be able to talk to Professor Thoms online about the causes and effects of such events.

“These floods have a beneficial impact on many aspects of the riverine environment,” he said. “Some of the big floodplain lakes are receiving water for the first time for many years. The last time that water from the Paroo got down into the Darling River was in the early 1970s.

“Animals, birds and plants all benefit. You see animals and plants coming out of dry soil – some of the plants growing up to two metres in two months. To see them bounce back to life is really amazing.

“The floods also have a huge influence on water bird movements. Birds from China, Japan and Korea follow the weather patterns and the floodwaters down through eastern Australia, where water bird populations have taken a real hammering in recent years.”

Professor Thoms and his colleagues are setting up a large interdisciplinary group, based at UNE, looking at all aspects of water in the environment. “I’m a fluvial geomorphologist by training,” he said, “but, after developing a more interdisciplinary approach, I now think of myself as a ‘river scientist’.

“We’re trying to understand how these river systems operate – and, in doing so, to produce information that can be used for the benefit of people and the environment.”

Clicking on the image displayed here reveals a photograph of Professor Martin Thoms.