‘Absolutely incredible’: Lake Eyre dances with color thanks to heavy La Niña rains | Wildlife

As an amplified La Niña weather event has turned life on Australia’s east coast into a flooded misery over the past few weeks, it has also played a part in helping to breathe life into the vast desert lake near the middle of the continent.

Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is about 700 km north of Adelaide, covers over 9,000 km2 – an area roughly equivalent to the greater suburbs of Melbourne – and is the lowest point on the Australian mainland.

When the tropical monsoon hits, flood waters flow from the main rivers of the Channel country to the outback of Queensland. This last happened on a large scale in 2019, when the area was flooded for the first time in decades.

Queensland’s waterways haven’t contributed as much to filling the lake this year, at least so far, although water is still flowing from the Diamantina River. Instead, the lake itself was hit by a local rainfall dump in January, more than double the long-term average, and water flowed from the nearby Flinders Ranges.

A flock of Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) rest on a river channel that crosses Lake Eyre North.  Lake Eyre North, South Australia, Australia March 2022 Cropped.
Rivers, green with vegetation and flowing, due to recent unusually high rainfall, near the edge of Lake Eyre North.  Lake Eyre North, South Australia, Australia March 2022

It’s not as humid as it was three years ago but, seen from the sky by the photographer Doug Gimesy, the result is a spectacular dance of pinks, blues, greens and browns as water replaces the red earth and white salt of the dry lake.

Pink colored water at the edge of the saline and the earth.  Madigan Gulf, Lake Eyre North, South Australia, Australia March 2022 Cropped.
North Lake Eyre edge showing water (brown), salt pan and water flow patterns.  Lake Eyre North, South Australia, Australia March 2022

Professor Richard Kingsford, a conservation biologist at the University of New South Wales, has studied the globally significant lake ecosystem for more than three decades and says there hasn’t been a rain like this- here on the lake since the 1980s.

Seeing the lake fill up in person, he says, is breathtaking.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Kingsford says. “I never tire of flying over it because each time it’s different. Just the extent of it. You get these amazing pink colors.

Aerial view after sunrise, showing the sun reflecting off water that has flowed into Lake Eyre South and formed a pond;  the water being the result of unusually high local desert rainfall.  Visible salt pan edges and streams around edge as well as desert greenery (rare).  South Lake Eyre, South Australia, Australia.  March 2022

“When it’s full it’s like a mirror and you get this thing where you lose your horizon. I remember being with pilots saying they have to use their instruments [to fly] because it was the only way to navigate.

The ecosystem comes alive when there is enough fresh water to dilute the salt that sits on the dry lake bottom. Then, tiny microscopic crustaceans hatch from egg cases on the bottom of the lake. This in turn brings species of saltwater fish and birds – pelicans, rosy-eared ducks, banded stilts and migratory waders such as sharp-tailed sandpipers.

Corellas at Beresford Railway SidingBeresford Railway Siding Ruins, Corella perch herds in a tree near a waterhole created by the unusually high rainfall in the area
Beresford Railway Siding Ruins, Flocks of CorellasBeresford Railway Siding Ruins, Flocks of Corella's fly in the twilight sky, near a waterhole created by the unusually high rainfall in the area

“I still remember counting birds there in the 1990s and there were 300,000 birds of every species you could imagine. It was like clouds of these birds flying past us,” Kingsford says.

The transformation of the landscape this year has been welcomed by traditional owners, conservationists, ranchers and tourism operators, who are taking tourist trips across the transforming country.

Neales Inlet from the Neale River in Lake Eyre NorthRivers, estuaries and channels form and water flows into Lake Eyre North due to unusually high rainfall in the desert.
Vegetation blooms in the Red Desert after unusually high local rainfall.  Anna Creek Station, South Australia, Australia March 2022

The Lake Eyre basin is considered one of the last pristine desert river systems on the planet and is a contested space. Residents campaigned to prevent the development from harnessing and redirecting the flow of water. Two decades ago there was a push to extend cotton irrigation to South West and Central Queensland.

Today, the big push for development comes from energy companies eyeing the Channel country’s fossil fuel reserves. The gas is stuck several kilometers deep, with government reports suggesting it would require hydraulic fracturing to release it.

Kingsford says dam construction projects also pose a health risk to the basin. “There are always big threats,” he says. “Fortunately, it’s pretty much still a free-flowing river system.”

Aerial view showing water flowing over edge of salt pan into South Lake Eyre;  the water being the result of unusually high local desert rainfall.  South Lake Eyre, South Australia, Australia.  March 2022

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