About the Pilbara

THE Pilbara’s vast landscape is host to what scientists believe is the ‘earliest well-preserved evidence of life on earth’. The Pilbara lies below the Kimberley as WA’s second-most northern region. It covers a total area of 507,896sq km (including offshore islands) and consists of three distinct geographical formations: a vast coastal plain, scenic inland ranges and an arid desert extending in to meet the Northern Territory boarder.

stromatolitesSharkBayStromatolites in Western Australia. Image: VladPixA treasure trove of evidence for some of the world's most ancient life, the Pilbara is home to the oldest known fossilised records on Earth.  Space explorers and scientists from around the world have special interest in the region’s geologically significant landscape. Scientists have uncovered the world’s oldest known examples of fossil stromatolites in the Pilbara, which were believed to have lived 3.49 billion years ago when the region was shoreline. It follows on from the earlier discovery of stromatolites at Strelley Pool near Port Hedland which are believed to be roughly 3.45 billion years old. These microbialites are abundant in rocks more than 500 million years old and are key indicators of the origins of life on the planet. The region is under the microscope of scientists and space organisations like NASA as its historical environment is thought to have been similar to that of Mars almost 3.6 billion years ago.

DampierArchipelagoDampier Archipelago. Image: iain.davidson100 The Dampier Archipelago is a collection of 42 islands off the coast of Dampier and Point Samson.  Along with Burrup Peninsular, the archipelago has been recognised by the National Heritage Council as being of outstanding cultural significance. The high concentration of Aboriginal rock art has been the focus of many archaeological studies. Based on the rate at which the rock surface erodes high-tech isotopic methods of dating have found that the oldest carvings could be 20 - 30,000 years old. An estimated one million carvings of sacred Aboriginal rock art cover an area of about 8sq km, much of which is underwater. Some paintings show humans and animals such as fish, crab, sharks and kangaroos while others depict animals now extinct like the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine cynocephalus). Just south of the Dampier Archipelago is Barrow Island which is also the subject of archaeological surveys to investigate human occupation sites which are as much as 7 - 8,000 years old and probably ended around the time that sea levels rose. Barrow Island now plays a major part in liquefied natural gas extraction, by hosting a 15.6mtpa LNG plant.

Of the 42 islands which make up the Dampier Archipelago 25 constitute the region’s marine park. The park’s waters are filled with dugong and bottlenose dolphins while humpback whales populate the region between July and September during the journey north to breed. The island’s beaches are usually populated with Loggerhead, Green, Flatback and Hawksbill turtles during the September to April nesting season while 26 species of seabirds also inhabit the area. The archipelago and areas of the mainland were named after the English explorer, William Dampier, who is credited as the first man to explore sections of Australia in 1699. Setting out in his ship, The Roebuck, Dampier made landfall at what he later called Shark Bay and began producing the first detailed records of Australian flora and fauna.

karijini national park desert1Karijini National Park. Image: cedrianaFurther inland, Karijini National Park at Tom Price is home to gorges, waterfalls, fresh water pools and extensive adventure trails throughout these ancient rock formations and vast landscapes. The park is home to a multitude of natural flora and fauna including the red kangaroo, rock wallabies, echidnas, dragons, dingoes, bats and the rare Pebble Mouse. The park also houses Mount Meharry in the Hamersley Range, which standing at 1,253 metres is the state’s tallest peak.   

The Pilbara has been a significant contributor to Western Australia’s economy since the 1960s. Dampier became the region’s first major mining town after Dampier Port was developed to export iron ore. By 1968 a new regional centre was created at Karratha as Dampier could no longer facilitate the district’s growing population. Now Port Hedland and Karratha are the major towns that support both permanent residents and a significant number of Fly-in Fly-out (FIFO) workers. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics roughly 63,000 people resided in the entire Pilbara region in 2011. Of this roughly 20,000 people were housed in Port Hedland while more than 19,000 lived in Karratha, including FIFO workers.

PilbaraironmineIron ore mining in the Pilbara. Image: Julian Cosson In 2011/12 the Pilbara alone contributed about $26.5 billion towards Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. The region’s immense reserves of valuable natural resources like iron ore and liquefied natural gas as well as salt, silver, gold, manganese and base metals show a diverse economic profile. In 2010/11 iron ore exports, worth $47 billion alone, totalled 400mt with the Pilbara Development Commission estimating potential iron ore exports could grow to one billion tonnes by 2020. In addition to iron ore and gas, 85 per cent of the country’s crude oil and condensate is sourced from the Pilbara. Other industries in the region are the fishing (primarily finfish and prawns) and high-growth aquaculture industries, the sheep and cattle industries and the manufacturing industry. A number of projects aimed at economic diversification are being implemented including solar energy production at Marble Bar and algae production for biofuel at Karratha as a green alternative to fossil fuels. 

The Pilbara has the largest salt evaporation fields in Australia and the second largest in the world with the cities of Dampier, Port Hedland and Onslow hosting the most important salt fields. High evaporation levels relative to annual rainfall make the district ideal for solar salt production. The process works by seawater being pumped into ponds to evaporate and recover crystallised salt which is later harvested and washed. WA supplies more than 90 per cent of Australian salt exports to Asia, Africa and the Middle East with the Pilbara supplying roughly 75 per cent of that figure, which was valued at $191.4 million almost a decade ago. 

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