Articles | Volume 19, issue 4
Research article
29 Apr 2015
Research article |  | 29 Apr 2015

Impacts of high inter-annual variability of rainfall on a century of extreme hydrologic regime of northwest Australia

A. Rouillard, G. Skrzypek, S. Dogramaci, C. Turney, and P. F. Grierson

Abstract. Long-term hydrologic records provide crucial reference baselines of natural variability that can be used to evaluate potential changes in hydrologic regimes and their impacts. However, there is a dearth of studies of the hydrologic regimes for tropical drylands where intraseasonal and interannual variability in magnitude and frequency of precipitation are extreme. Here, we sought to identify the main hydroclimatic determinants of the strongly episodic flood regime of a large catchment in the semi-arid, subtropical northwest of Australia and to establish the background of hydrologic variability for the region over the last century. We used a monthly sequence of satellite images to quantify surface water expression on the Fortescue Marsh, the largest water feature of inland northwest Australia, from 1988 to 2012. We used this sequence together with instrumental rainfall data to build a statistical model with multiple linear regression and reconstruct monthly history of floods and droughts since 1912. We found that severe and intense regional rainfall events, as well as the sequence of recharge events both within and between years, determine surface water expression on the floodplain (i.e. total rainfall, number of rain days and carried-over inundated area; R2adj = 0.79; p value < 0.001, ERMSP = 56 km2). The most severe reconstructed inundation over the last century was in March 2000 (1000 km2), which is less than the 1300 km2 area required to overflow to the adjacent catchment. The Fortescue Marsh was completely dry for 32% of all years, for periods of up to four consecutive years. Extremely wet years (seven of the 100 years) caused the Marsh to remain inundated for up to 12 months; only 25% of years (9% of all months) had floods of greater than 300 km2. The prolonged, severe and consecutive yearly inundations between 1999 and 2006 were unprecedented compared to the last century. While there is high inter-annual variability in the system, if the frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events for the region were to increase (or be similar to 1999–2006), surface water on the Marsh will become more persistent, in turn impacting its structure and functioning as a wetland.

Short summary
We reconstructed a 100-year monthly history of flooding and drought of a large wetland in arid northwest Australia, using hydroclimatic data calibrated against 25 years of satellite images. Severe and intense regional rainfall, as well as the sequence of events, determined surface water expression on the floodplain. While inter-annual variability was high, changes to the flood regime over the last 20 years suggest the wetland may become more persistent in response to the observed rainfall trend.