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Parliament House, Canberra
11 March 1998 (19:15)

Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for the Environment

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland--Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment) (7.20 p.m.)--One of the first tasks that I had the honour to perform upon my appointment almost 18 months ago as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment with responsibility for, amongst other things, the Bureau of Meteorology, was to officiate at the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the weather bureau station at Willis Island in the Coral Sea.

At the time, I was invited to visit Willis Island but difficulties with itinerary and the fact that the island is some 500 kilometres north-east of Townsville and about 500 kilometres directly east of Port Douglas made getting there rather difficult for that occasion. So we did the celebration at the time by remote control, by telephone, from the Thuringowa City Council Chambers. But I did commit myself to visit the island at the first available opportunity. Just prior to last Christmas I was able to honour that commitment by visiting the island as part of the half-yearly supply and changeover of bureau staff at Willis Island.

Willis Island has a unique, high quality climate record dating from its establishment by Commonwealth navigator Captain John K. Davis in 1921. Coincidentally, Australia's main base in the Antarctic, Davis Station, is named after that very same Captain John Davis.

After the cyclones which devastated Mackay and Innisfail in 1918, agitation for a station in the Coral Sea grew. Between June and November 1921, a wireless hut and an 87-foot wireless mast were constructed on Willis Island, with the first weather reading being at 9 a.m. on 8 November 1921. The island has been continuously manned since that time.

Over the years there have been periodic upgrades of both the technical equipment and the staff facilities. The Willis Island program continues to be a key component of tropical cyclone warning systems in Australia as well as the basic observation network for the Queensland weather forecast. The more accurate positioning and tracking of cyclone centres provided by Willis Island radar and the data provided by the six hourly upper air soundings contribute materially to the accuracy of tropical cyclone forecasts--a matter of major importance to the safety of life in North Queensland, to say nothing of the economy.

The climate record from Willis Island is virtually unique in the world in its length and representativeness of an undisturbed oceanic trade wind regime. The island is manned by a staff of three or four, usually consisting of two or three technical officers, observers, one of whom is the officer in charge, and a technical officer, electronics, who is responsible for the maintenance of electronic and mechanical equipment on the island. The island measures about 500 metres by 150 metres and is in the middle of the Coral Sea.

At the time of a changeover, a team of contractors descend upon the island, spending an intensive two days repairing, maintaining and renovating very sensitive equipment as well as the base buildings. On the time of my visit prior to Christmas, I was accompanied to the island by the Regional Director of the Bureau of Meteorology in Queensland, Mr Rex Falls, and the ingoing party, consisting of the officer in charge, Graham Taylor; an observer, Mr Brendan McMahon; and the technician, Mr David Hughes. The outgoing party consisted of the OIC, Rob McFarlane; Robyn Paton; Geoff Smith; and the technician, Chris Hughes. The trip to the island from Townsville took about 36 hours in the supply ship Pacific Conquest in what was said to be, mercifully, one of the calmest recent resupplies of this Coral Sea island.

As the bureau's recent newsletter says, I was given a memento of my visit by the outgoing team. I was presented with what is nicely described as `a heavily weathered Australian flag'. In fact the flag, from being flown in that unprotected spot for more than six months, was worn almost halfway through and was covered with the droppings of the plentiful inhabitants of the island, the booby bird and the terns. During the visit I took part in some trials to obtain temperatures and pressures which all form part of the science attempting to understand and determine the El Nino impact on Australia. Willis Island was battered last year by Cyclone Justin and was again earlier this year the subject of some very severe weather when the most recent cyclone on the east Queensland coast was roaming around the Coral Sea area.

Madam President, the highest point on Willis Island--and you will recall that I said it was about 150 metres by 500 metres in length--is about 10 metres above sea level, and this island is right in the middle of the Coral Sea. But I am told that at no time has the island ever been awash. The staff are reasonably well accommodated on the island in air conditioned comfort in their sleeping quarters. The weather predicting area, the bureau office, is also air conditioned.

The rest of it is fairly open and quite a pleasant place, but it can be quite dangerous with heavy winds around. Whilst the staff are looked after in good times, there is a safety bunker constructed on the island which will keep safe the staff and those who might happen to be there at the time in the case of an unthinkable event ever happening, such as a major tidal wave--although I am told that because the island is in the middle of the Coral Sea dangerous tidal waves rarely happen.

The Willis Island weather station is an essential part of the Australian weather observing and predicting system and has a long, proud record and a very colourful history. The dedicated bureau people who have staffed the station over the years continue to do marvellous work. The isolation is difficult for the bureau personnel. The dedication of the people and others at equally remote places on the mainland and in Antarctica demonstrate very clearly what a dedicated and professional group it is who watch over Australia's weather 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year.

Commonwealth of Australia