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Outback weather watchers use local knowledge to record private history of rain events

By Jenny Woodward, Saturday April 21, 2018 - 08:38 EST
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Monitoring the river has always been part of Mr Moffatt's life, with records stretching back 70 years. - ABC

When your livelihood depends on the weather, predictions, patterns and planning are paramount, which is especially true for farmers and graziers in western Queensland where families have been keeping an eye on the skies for decades.

In fact, some have their own scrupulously collected records dating back more than a century, above and beyond the data collected by the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM).

Graham Moffatt's family has owned Camoola Park, north of Longreach in the state's central-west, since 1899.

The homestead sits near the banks of the Thomson River and, while their house has stayed dry, floodwaters have raged over the years and the river can swell to a mighty lake stretching as far as the eye can see.

Mr Moffatt said he could remember emergency trips during the floods.

"Dad had a boat and we used to go down to Longreach to pick up stores and mail — no lifejackets or anything like that," he said.

"He'd say 'sit in that spot, don't move' and you'd be there for the whole trip."

"Dad had a very good knowledge of the river, travelling on it and so forth.

"Going down he would stick basically to the main channel and the current would basically give you a hand as far as your speed was concerned, but coming back he would always stay out in the dead water away from the current.

"On a windy day it was almost like being on the coast, with waves on it."



Valuable records recorded on long paper scroll

Monitoring the river has always been part of Mr Moffatt's life, with records stretching back 70 years.

"Dad started reading the river here in the early 1950s — we have got records that go back to the 1950 flood, and then I took over," Mr Moffatt said.

He describes the process casually: "You get out of bed, turn the jug on, you walk down, read the river. You walk back and by that time the jug's has boiled. You can have a cup of coffee and report the river height to the bureau in Brisbane."

While the BOM stores the data electronically, Mr Moffatt also faithfully records the valuable records on a long paper scroll that shows the ebb and flow over the years.

It is critical information for the local region and especially Longreach.

"Longreach is very vulnerable and they really need to know what the river is doing upstream," Mr Moffatt said.

"It goes back to if they've got to make emergency preparations and so forth, at least it gives them a bit of a lag time".

Historic rain records essential for graziers

Further west at Baratria Station, the rainfall records date back to 1890.

Rain is critical to the grazing industry and yet it is the one element that cannot be controlled. It can be measured however and that task is essential for manager Greg Bowden.

Mr Bowden has correlated much of the historical data to el Nino and la Nina years, and he analyses the trends so he can make the best decisions.



"If it's a la Nina year you expect rain, so you can just look at the feed that you've got, especially if you get early storms, and at least then you can say 'righto, I can keep the stock a bit longer or on the other foot if it's going to be dry'," he said.

"You might sell them quicker and reduce your numbers and conserve the grass that you have got.

He said without the rain, "we are just in a whole lot of trouble".

"There wouldn't be a grazing industry without the rain — it makes or breaks us," he said.

"We try and keep some feed up our sleeve for the dry times and as the saying goes, love your family, don't love your stock — sell your stock when you need to."

Along with monitoring weather indices, Mr Bowden keeps a close eye on weather patterns in other countries.

"With monsoon flooding in India and those sorts of places, it generally means there's a lot of moisture about and I think some historical data shows we can have good floods when there's good floods in India," Mr Bowden said.



Weather photos speak 'a thousand words'

Both farmers employ all the tactics they can muster to measure and understand the weather.

"I take a lot of photos all year round and every year — to look back on the photos speaks a thousand words," Mr Bowden said.

At Camoola Park, Mr Moffatt looks to the natural world.

Among other signs, Mr Moffatt said "if the emus are nesting, that's generally an indication that there might be something down the track because they're not going to breed if they know it's going be a dry spell".

But if all else fails, Mr Moffatt said it was great to remember the basics.

"I still believe you just walk outside yourself and have a look at the sky," Mr Moffatt said.


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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