Voyage to solve riddle of shifting sands

06 May 2003

A team of scientific explorers from Geoscience Australia set off from Port Cairns this week to solve the riddle of the shifting sands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. They will gather vital information that will assist local councils and national agencies to sustainably manage Australia's regional river catchments and offshore marine environments.

"The area is rich in biological diversity with sea grass beds providing habitats for marine species such as dugongs, fringe reef corals and sea turtles. They also support the local fisheries including a thriving prawn industry", said Warren Entsch, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, as he launched the expedition from Port Cairns.

"The majority of Australia's river-borne sediments - made up of sands, rocks and silts - never make it to the ocean. Instead they travel from rivers to coastal estuaries, where they are trapped as part of underlying sediments", said Dr Peter Harris, expedition Chief Scientist from Geoscience Australia.

"The Gulf of Carpentaria is Australia's largest exception with over half the sediments on its sea-floor originating from rivers in adjacent catchments. This unique area gives us the perfect opportunity to study the effects of inland sediments in marine environments", added Dr Harris.

"This is extremely important because of the Gulf's marine resources and potential environmental impacts from commercial activities including proposed mining in the adjacent river catchments, the fishing industry, shipping and dredging", said Warren Entsch.

The team hopes to solve the riddle of the shifting sands by investigating where the sediments originate and how much get into the Gulf. They will also track the illusive movements of the sediments and map where they finally settle.

"Once we have measured sediment input to the Gulf of Carpentaria, we will be able to construct computer models, which will help predict the environmental impact of sediment movement in marine environments all over Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef", said Dr Harris.

The team of 12 Geoscience Australia scientists will conduct mapping of the sea floor to obtain a 3 dimensional image of the underwater terrain. They will also collect sediment samples, water samples and biological specimens and record underwater video footage.

The team will be on board the Southern Surveyor for over four weeks, disembarking in Darwin in early June 2003.

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