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Experts look to Australia's Aborigines for weather help

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SYDNEY, Australia (Reuters) -- When the bearded dragon lizard sits upright and points its head to the sky, it is going to rain the next day. If a flock of currawongs flies overhead you've only got four hours to get the washing off the line.

If the queen wattle blooms heavily, bull ants abandon their tree nests for mounds of dirt, or meat ants cover nests with tiny, heat-reflecting quartz stones, then bushfires are coming.

Sounds like mumbo-jumbo?

Not to Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, which hopes to tap into the tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal weather knowledge to help it expand its understanding of the island continent's harsh climate.

Aboriginal ideas about the weather can be starkly different.

Unlike the conventional European notion of four seasons -- summer, autumn, winter and spring -- Aborigines in different parts of Australia count as little as two or as many as six, each intimately linked to subtle changes in the local environment.

"The bureau comes from a purely Western scientific meteorology perspective. It is something entirely new for a weather bureau to recognize the importance of this other weather knowledge," said bureau forecaster John O'Brien.

"Our concepts of meteorological science have a time span of several hundred years, whereas Aboriginal culture based on weather, flora, fauna and climate is tens of thousands of years old," O'Brien told Reuters.

The Bureau of Meteorology has launched an "Indigenous Weather" Web site ( mapping Aboriginal weather knowledge and plans to keep on updating it as it documents new indigenous weather calendars.

Indigenous weather patterns

Aboriginal culture is dominated by a creation time called the "Dreaming," which links past and present in a continuum. In it, the weather, land, plants, animals, people, previous generations and supernatural forces are all inter-related.

Aboriginal culture is passed down from generation to generation in oral form, using stories and legends, but this generation is the first to start recording weather knowledge.

Frances Bodkin, a descendant of Sydney's D'harawal Aborigines, said indigenous weather patterns were signposted by plants, animals and the stars and were as accurate as any modern-day meteorological forecast.

"Present-day scientists do their studies by measurements and experiments. Aboriginal people are just as good scientists, but they use observation and experience," Bodkin, a botanist at Sydney's Mount Annan Botanical gardens, told Reuters.

In 1788, when English settlers first arrived in Sydney, they imposed the four European seasons on their new home without any real knowledge of local weather patterns, yet the local Aborigines lived according to an annual six-season calendar.

For longer-range weather forecasting they used an 11-12 year cycle and a massive 8,000-10,000-year cycle, said Bodkin, who is entrusted with D'harawal weather knowledge.

The bushfires which burned through Sydney in the past two "European summers" came as no surprise to Aborigines as Sydney's queen wattle trees bloomed heavily for the past two years, a sign bushfires were coming, said Bodkin.

"When it has a very heavy bloom the D'harawal people knew they had 18 months to burn off before massive fires went through," explained Bodkin. "That gave them two really good seasons to burn off before the fires appeared."

Bodkin warned the queen wattle had a massive number of buds this year and would again flower heavily -- a portent of more fires to come.

Sydney's six seasons

Sydney's six-season Aboriginal calendar is based on the flowering of various native plants.

• Murrai'yunggoray, when the red waratah flower blooms, is the first season. Spanning September and October, it is a time when temperatures rise.

• Goraymurrai, when the two-veined hickory wattle flowers, occurs around November to December. It is a time of warm, wet weather and historically Aborigines would not camp near rivers for fear of flooding.

• Gadalung marool, when the single-veined hickory wattle flowers, is hot and dry. It occurs from January to February and Aborigines only ate fruit and seeds as the heat meant stored meat would spoil quickly.

• Banamurrai'yung, when the lillipilli tree produces tiny sour berries, is around March to May and is a time of wet, cooling temperatures, a signal to make cloaks to keep warm.

• Tugarah'tuli, when the forest red gum flowers around June to July, is a cold time. Aborigines would traditionally journey to the coast where food was more abundant.

• Tugarah'gunyamarra, when the gossamer wattle flowers around August, is the end of the annual weather calendar. It is a cold and windy season, a time to build shelters facing the rising sun. It was also a time for Aborigines to return to Sydney's western highland, following fish upstream.

The weather phenomenon El Nino has been blamed for Australia's worst drought in 100 years -- a dry spell which has seen bushfires blaze along the eastern seaboard, ringing Sydney and razing hundreds of homes in the national capital, Canberra.

But according to the D'harawal Aborigines, El Nino is not to blame, but the rare meteorological convergence of three ancient climate cycles -- the annual hot and dry Gadalung marool, the hot season of the 11-year Djurali cycle and the 8,000-10,000 Talara'gandi, which means ice and fire.

The 11-year cycle started in 2001 with the appearance of the Aurora Australis, the luminous pale green and pink phenomenon that occurs in the upper atmosphere above the South Pole, said Bodkin. The Aurora Australis is caused by the interaction of electrons and protons from outside the atmosphere.

The Talara'gandi, or ice and fire, had in the past been responsible for Ice Ages and desertification, said Bodkin and it started when the sea began rising. Aborigines tell stories that the ocean was once a three-day walk east of Sydney's coastline.

"We are in a period of absolute extremes, where we should be getting very cold, dry winters and very hot, dry summers," said Bodkin. "If you superimpose the 10,000-year cycle on top, I think it may last for 2,000 years."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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