Future change in ancient worlds: Indigenous adaptation in northern Australia

Media type: 
Deanne Bird
Jeanie Govan
Helen Murphy
Sharon Harwood
Katharine Haynes
Dean Carson
Stephen Russell
David King
Ed Wensing
Nicole Tsakissiris
Steven Larkin
Charles Darwin University
Risk Frontiers
Macquarie University
James Cook University
Flinders University
University of South Australia
Australian National University
University of Canberra
SGS Economics and Planning
Northern Territory


Northern Australia is highly exposed to a number of natural hazards including: cyclones and associated storm surges, riverine and flash flooding, heatwaves, coastal erosion, bushfires and drought – some of which might be exacerbated by climate change. With an approximate population of 160,000 Indigenous people (29% of the total Indigenous population of Australia) it is critical to develop a multifaceted understanding of how climate change will affect Indigenous communities in northern Australia. Moreover, decisions about how to support Indigenous communities to adapt to and reduce their risks from climate change impacts must be informed by greater understandings of their current adaptive capacities, e.g. why they may be vulnerable or resilient, how they have coped with and adapted to past environmental changes, who is likely to leave, stay or return, and how sustainable communities can be maintained.

This report examines the underlying vulnerabilities, adaptive capacities and population movements of Indigenous people in four communities in northern Australia – Broome in Western Australia; Maningrida and Ngukurr in the Northern Territory; and Wujal Wujal in Queensland. The report addresses the following research questions:

  • How and why are Indigenous people in northern Australia vulnerable?
  • How and why are Indigenous people in northern Australia resilient?
  • How do specific populations differ in terms of their current resilience and adaptive capacity to slow onset changes and extreme weather events?
  • What role does population movement have as an adaptive response to climate change?
  • What changes are needed to enable Indigenous communities to enhance their resilience and adaptive capacities for future extreme weather events and other impacts of climate change?

To address these questions, the following four research approaches were taken:

  • Demographic history and population volatility – An analysis of population volatility, using demographic variables such as age and sex distributions, mobility and migration, and population density. It is believed that communities with excessive population volatility are likely to experience more dramatic disruption as a result of environmental changes.
  • Land use planning as climate change adaptation – An examination of the role that land use planning and development controls play in creating disasterresilient communities. This was conducted by comparing the land use planning legislation, state-level planning policies, statutory planning schemes, property registration systems and emergency management systems in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia.
  • Indigenous views of change and risk – An ethnographic and qualitative study of the relationship that individuals and communities have with their everchanging environment. The investigation examined Indigenous views of change and risk, as well as the broader socioeconomic and political circumstances that impact on their underlying vulnerabilities and capacities to adapt.
  • Children’s understanding of weather and seasons in Broome – A qualitative investigation of children’s perceptions to provide a more holistic understanding of how changes in weather and climate affect the younger members of the community.

Please cite this report as:

Bird, D, Govan, J, Murphy, H, Harwood, S, Haynes, K, Carson, D, Russell, S, King, D, Wensing, E, Tsakissiris, S & Larkin, S 2013, Future change in ancient worlds: Indigenous adaptation in northern Australia, National Climate Change Adaptation Research facility, Gold Coast, 261 pp. 

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This photo is copyright © Jeanie Govan