The potential impact of climate change and altered hydrology due to mining activities on a major Pilbara wetland is being studied by a researcher at The University of Western Australia.
Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Associate Professor Grzegorz (Greg) Skrzypek said the 960-square kilometre Fortescue Marsh was a wetland of national importance and was also highly significant to Indigenous people.
"The marsh, about 100km north of Newman, is part of the catchment area of the Fortescue River. It is an important bird area and a wetland of national significance, supporting flora and fauna species of very high conservation value," he said.
Associate Professor Skrzypek is working with Rio Tinto, as well as government and other industry partners, to better understand the area so that disturbance from human activity can be kept to a minimum. He is based at UWA's West Australian Biogeochemistry Centre in the School of Plant Biology.
He is also a chief investigator on a new Australian Research Council Linkage Project (to start this year) led by UWA's Dr Pauline Grierson, in collaboration with Professor Chris Turney and Dr Charlotte Cook (University of New South Wales), Dr Paul Greenwood (UWA) and Dr Shawan Dogramaci (Rio Tinto).
The project will investigate the paleohydrological history of the marsh over decades and hundreds of thousands of years using a variety of techniques including analyses of the stable isotope geochemistry of water, sediments and tree-ring samples.
The project seeks to determine how the marsh "works" as a basis for developing best management practices in the catchment and to minimise potential impacts of mining.
"Recent flooding from deluges associated with Cyclone Heidi will provide a fantastic opportunity to assess the response of the marsh to extreme climatic events," Associate Professor Skrzypek said.
Associate Professor Skrzypek's expertise takes him around the world. In addition to his research in the arid north, he is also researching fragile alpine bog ecosystems in the Rocky Mountains (USA), Sudety Mountains (Poland) and the Alpine National Park (Victoria, Australia), as well as cacti in Big Bend National Park (Texas) and the role of Arctic tundra in absorbing carbon dioxide (Svalbard).
Previously, he has also analysed the scraps of animal bones left by Neanderthals in Poland to determine what caused the Neanderthals' extinction from a paleoclimate context.
"We know that climate has natural variability, but we also know that we are significantly altering these natural trends," he said. "Therefore, we need to know about past climates as much as we can in order to assess what is our human contribution to the currently observed climate trends. The work I'm involved in can help us find that out."