Tiwi Islanders have a long history of strong ties to ancestral lands, habitats and wildlife, and Tiwi livelihoods are highly dependent on natural resources. Climate change is likely to change the resources available to support Tiwi people. Rising temperatures will affect the seasonal availability of bush tucker, as plant flowering and fruiting times change. Rising sea levels and more big storms will cause many coastal freshwater places to become saltier in the future. Over the past 20 years, sea levels in northern Australia have been rising by about 10 mm each year. This is much greater than the sea level rise in southern Australia, and is two to three times greater than the global average. For communities living close by the sea, even moderate sea-level rises may mean people will have to move to higher ground.
Tiwi people have strong cultural and subsistence links to sea turtles. Sea turtles are predicted to be severely threatened by rapid climate change; rising sea levels may affect their return to nesting sites, and increased nest temperatures and moisture from rising sea levels may affect the sex and development of hatchlings. Research on sea turtles has been conducted on the Tiwi Islands since 2003.
Remote communities are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because of limited access to services, and an increase in the proportion of high-intensity cyclones will have a significant impact on infrastructure. Adaptation to changes in climate is nothing new. Throughout history, Tiwi people have adapted to different climates and environmental changes. However, the current rate of global climate change is unusually high compared to past changes that people have experienced. Learning about how people have coped with changes in the past can help shape management plans and strategies for the future. Long-term monitoring is an important way to learn about how the climate is changing, and what effects those changes might have on the Tiwi Islands.
Tiwi Climate Change Working Group
The Tiwi Climate Change Committee, responsible for future climate change adaptation planning on the islands, was established in 2017 as a key outcome of a CoastAdapt workshop. CoastAdapt is an online coastal climate risk management framework developed by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility to support adaptation to coastal climate change and sea-level rise. The workshop held on the Tiwi Islands demonstrated the CoastAdapt tool and how its broad range of its resources could be used in planning for the future.
Tiwi College Climate Change project
Tiwi College students worked on a year-long project to help increase local awareness about climate change and its potential impacts on the Tiwi Islands. As part of the program, the students constructed a large 3D model of the Tiwi Islands to improve their understanding of Tiwi geography and communicate the implications of rising sea-levels. Using the model, they demonstrated the effects of sea level rise to fellow students on the islands, and helped raise awareness of climate change with a range of climate science activities. The Tiwi Land Council have adopted the model for traditional landowner consultations concerning land and sea management. The Murrakupuni (Earth) and Climate Change song was also written by Tiwi College students and produced in collaboration with the NT Government’s VAMPtv, an online arts forum for remote students. The Climate Change project was conducted by CSIRO with the Tiwi College, as part of the Australian Government’s Inspiring Australia Program.