The Pilbara (/ˈpɪlbərə/) is a large, dry, thinly populated region in the north of Western Australia. It is known for its Aboriginal peoples; its ancient landscapes; the red earth; and its vast mineral deposits, in particular iron ore. It is also a global biodiversity hotspot for subterranean fauna.[1]

Definitions of the Pilbara region

North of the Pilbara looking south at the range

At least two important but differing definitions of "the Pilbara" region exist. Administratively it is one of the nine regions of Western Australia defined by the Regional Development Commissions Act 1993; the term also refers to the Pilbara shrublands bioregion (which differs in extent) under the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA).[2][3]

IBRA regions and subregions: IBRA7
IBRA region / subregionIBRA codeAreaStatesLocation in Australia
Pilbara shrublandsPIL17,823,126 hectares (44,041,900 acres)WA
ChichesterPIL018,374,728 hectares (20,694,400 acres)
FortescuePIL021,951,435 hectares (4,822,100 acres)
HamersleyPIL035,634,727 hectares (13,923,710 acres)
RoebournePIL041,862,236 hectares (4,601,690 acres)


Map of Pilbara

The Pilbara region, as defined by the Regional Development Commissions Act 1993 and administered for economic development purposes by the Pilbara Development Commission,[4] has an estimated population of 61,688 as of June 2018,[5][6] and covers an area of 507,896 square kilometres (196,100 sq mi).[7] It contains some of Earth's oldest rock formations, and includes landscapes of coastal plains and mountain ranges with cliffs and gorges. The major settlements of the region are Port Hedland, Karratha and Newman. The three main ports in this region are Port Hedland, Dampier and Port Walcott.[8]

The area is known for its petroleum, natural gas and iron ore deposits, which contribute significantly to Australia's economy. Other than mining, pastoral activities as well as fishing and tourism are the main industries.[9]

Urban centres and localities

2001 census Ref. 2006 census Ref. 2011 census Ref. 2016 census Ref. 2021 census Ref.
1KarrathaKarratha10,730 11,72816,475 15,828 17,013
2Port HedlandPort Hedland12,695 11,55713,772 13,828 15,298
3NewmanEast Pilbara3,516 4,2455,478 4,567 4,239
4Tom PriceAshburton3,095 2,7213,134 2,956 2,874
5WickhamKarratha1,724 1,8251,651 1,572 2,016
6ParaburdooAshburton1,202 1,6071,509 1,359 1,319
7DampierKarratha1,469 1,3701,341 1,104 1,282
8OnslowAshburton802 576667 848 813
9RoebourneKarratha950 857813 627 700
10PannawonicaAshburton618 686651 695 685
11JigalongEast Pilbara300 273357 333 289
12Point SamsonKarratha322 274298 211 235
13KiwirrkurraEast Pilbara216 165 180
14Marble BarEast Pilbara234 194208 174 153
15NullagineEast Pilbara178 194 147

Local government

The Pilbara region, under the Pilbara Development Commission, contains four local government areas:

Ashburton – Shire of Ashburton
East Pilbara – Shire of East Pilbara
Karratha – City of Karratha
Port Hedland – Town of Port Hedland


The Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre Wangka Maya says that the name for the Pilbara region derives from the Aboriginal word bilybara, meaning "dry" in the Nyamal and Banyjima languages.[10]

Alternatively, the Western Australia Gas Industry claims that the region takes its name from pilbarra, an Aboriginal word for the mullet that is available in local waters.[11] The Pilbara Creek (originally spelt "Pilbarra") is a tributary of the Yule River, a significant river in the region. Sea mullet and barramundi can still be caught in the Yule River today.[12] Pilbara Goldfield, discovered in 1885, was named after the creek, and the name later became associated with the region.[11]


The mushroom cloud resulting from the Operation Hurricane detonation

Radiocarbon dating estimates in evidence show that rock art and standing stones in the world heritage-listed Murujuga Cultural Landscape in Dampier Archipelago, Australia's earliest known stone structures, believably dating from 6046 to 5338 BC, are of contextualization by thousands of years of unique cultural traditions and folklore. These sites have lived up as part of survival in present times.

The first European to explore the area was Francis Thomas Gregory in 1861. Within two years, European settlers had begun arriving. The region was regarded as part of the North West at first – a larger area that included the modern Kimberley and Gascoyne regions.

Settlements along the coast at Tien Tsin Harbour (later Cossack), Roebourne and Condon (officially Shellborough; later abandoned) were established over ensuing decades, mainly as centres of the rangeland livestock (grazing/pastoral) industry or pearling ports. However, as natural mother of pearl beds around Cossack were fished out, the pearling fleet began to move northward, and by 1883 it was based at Broome, in the Kimberley region. From c.1900, pastoralism went into decline with the growth of other, more productive agricultural areas of the state.

Mining in the region started on 1 October 1888, when the Pilbara Goldfield was officially declared – named after a local creek, the goldfield would later give its name to the region as a whole. It was later divided into the Nullagine Goldfield and Marble Bar Goldfield. However, gold mining began to decline in the Pilbara in the mid-1890s, after alluvial ore had been exhausted. In 1937, mining of asbestos commenced at Wittenoom Gorge. While the presence of abundant iron ore had been known for about a century, it was not until the 1960s and the discovery of high-grade ore in the Hamersley Ranges that the area became pivotal to the state's economy, and towns built to accommodate mining and allied services boomed.[13]

In the 1950s, three British nuclear weapons tests were carried out in the Montebello Islands, 130 km (81 mi) off the Pilbara coast.

Aboriginal peoples


The Aboriginal population of the Pilbara considerably predates, by 30–40,000 years, the European colonisation of the region. Archaeological evidence indicates that people were living in the Pilbara even during the harsh climatic conditions of the Last Glacial Maximum.[14] The early history of the first peoples is held within an oral tradition, archeological evidence and petroglyphs. Near the town of Dampier is a peninsula known as Murujuga, which contains a large collection of world heritage listed petroglyphs, dating back thousands of years. Rock art in the Pilbara appears to have been primarily etched into the hard rock surfaces, compared to predominantly paintings on the softer sandstone in the Kimberley. This does not preclude that painting was and is not performed in the Pilbara.

Burrup rock art

20th century

Working conditions in the pearling and pastoral industries for Aboriginal people in the Pilbara region around 1900 have been described as slavery, with no wages paid, kidnapping as well as severe and cruel punishments for misbehaviour and absconding all common practices.[15] Some incidents, such as the Bendu Atrocity of 1897, attracted international condemnation. The first strike by Indigenous people in Australia took place in 1946 in the Pilbara, known as the Pilbara strike or Pilbara Aboriginal strike, when Aboriginal pastoral workers walked off the stations in protest at low pay and bad working conditions, a strike that lasted for over three years.[16]

Family clans in the Pilbara who were supported by mining prospector, Don McLeod,[17] developed skills for mining and the concentration of rare metals. For a short period money accumulated, which according to Aboriginal law was to be used for traditional ways. Eventually the funds were used to establish an independent Aboriginal-controlled school.[18] The concept has expanded into a movement with around 20 similar schools established in northern Western Australia by the mid 1990s. Jan Richardson, wife of Victorian Aboriginal activist Stan Davey, wrote a biography of McLeod as a doctoral thesis.[19][20]

21st century

In 2006, it was estimated that 15% of the population of the Pilbara identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, approximately 6,000 people.[21]

Many Pilbara communities face the many complex effects of colonisation, and lack adequate access to housing, health and education.[22][23] A 1971 survey of 1,000 Aboriginal people conducted by Pat McPherson found that most had one or more serious diseases.[24] At the McClelland Royal Commission into British nuclear testing, Aboriginals from the Pilbara provided evidence regarding the explosion on the Montebello Islands.[25]

Aboriginal communities are sited over a number of different places.[26] Many have poor infrastructure,[27][28] and relations between police and Aboriginal people are often tense.[29]

Location and description

Under the Regional Development Commissions Act Pilbara is situated south of the Kimberley, and is made up of the local government areas of Shire of Ashburton, Shire of East Pilbara, City of Karratha and Town of Port Hedland.

The Pilbara region covers an area of 507,896 km2 (193,826 mi2) (including offshore islands), roughly the combined land area of the US States of California and Indiana. It has a population of more than 45,000,[30] most of whom live in the western third of the region, in towns such as Port Hedland, Karratha, Wickham, Newman and Marble Bar. A substantial number of people also work in the region on a fly-in/fly-out basis. There are approximately 10 major/medium population centres and more than 25 smaller ones

Weano Gorge in Karijini National Park

The Pilbara consists of three distinct geographic areas. The western third is the Roebourne coastal sandplain, which supports most of the region's population in towns and much of its industry and commerce. The eastern third is almost entirely desert, and is sparsely populated by a small number of Aboriginal peoples. These are separated by the inland uplands of the Pilbara Craton, including the predominant Hamersley Range which has a considerable number of mining towns, the Chichester Range and others. These uplands have a number of gorges and other natural attractions.

The Pilbara contains some of the world's oldest surface rocks, including the ancient fossilised remains known as stromatolites and rocks such as granites that are more than three billion years old. In 2007, some of the oldest evidence of life on Earth was found in 3.4 billion-year-old sandstones at Strelley Pool, which preserve fossils of sulfur-processing bacteria.[31] The mineralized spheres, which were found on an ancient beach and have a cell-like morphology, were chemically analysed, revealing that they used sulfur for fuel.[32]


The Terra satellite captured this image of Cyclone Fay, over the Western Australian coast on 27 March 2004.
300m of North West Coastal Highway approaches to the Maitland River bridge were destroyed during Cyclone Monty in 2004

The climate of the Pilbara is arid and tropical.[6] It experiences high temperatures and low irregular rainfall that follows the summer cyclones. During the summer months, maximum temperatures exceed 32 °C (90 °F) almost every day, and temperatures in excess of 45 °C (113 °F) are not uncommon. Winter temperatures rarely drop below 10 °C (50 °F) on the coast; however, inland temperatures as low as 0 °C (32 °F) are occasionally recorded.

The Pilbara town of Marble Bar set a world record of most consecutive days of maximum temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) or more, during a period of 160 such days from 31 October 1923 to 7 April 1924.[33]

The average annual rainfall in the region is between 200 and 350 millimetres (7.9 and 13.8 in).[6] Almost all of the Pilbara's rainfall occurs between December and May, usually with occasional heavy downpours in thunderstorms or tropical cyclones. The period from June to November is usually completely rainless, with warm to very hot and sunny conditions. Like most of the north coast of Australia, the coastal areas of the Pilbara experience occasional tropical cyclones. The frequency of cyclones crossing the Pilbara coast is about 7 every 10 years.[6][34] Due to the low population density in the Pilbara region, cyclones rarely cause large scale destruction or loss of life.

Climate data for Port Hedland (Coastal)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 49.0
Average high °C (°F) 36.4
Average low °C (°F) 25.6
Record low °C (°F) 18.1
Average rainfall mm (inches) 62.2
Source: Bureau of Meteorology[35]
Climate data for Newman (Inland)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 47.0
Average high °C (°F) 39.5
Average low °C (°F) 25.3
Record low °C (°F) 16.1
Average precipitation mm (inches) 57.2
Source: [36]


The Pilbara's economy is dominated by mining exports and petroleum export industries.[37]

Iron ore

Jaspillite (banded iron formation) specimen from the Ord-Ridley Ranges, Pardoo, Pilbara

Most of Australia's iron ore is mined in the Pilbara, with mines mostly centred around Tom Price and Newman. The iron ore industry employs 9,000 people from the Pilbara area. The Pilbara also has one of the world's major manganese mines, Woodie Woodie, situated 400 kilometres (250 mi) southeast of Port Hedland.

Iron ore deposits were first discovered by prospector Stan Hilditch, who in 1957 found a large iron ore deposit in the southern Ophthalmia Range, at what was to become the Mount Whaleback mine.[38]

In the 1960s, it was reportedly called "one of the most massive ore bodies in the world" by Thomas Price, then vice president of US-based steel company Kaiser Steel. Geoscience Australia calculated that the country's "economic demonstrated resources" of iron amounted to 24 gigatonnes, or 24 billion tonnes. According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, as of 2010, that resource is being used up at a rate of 324 million tonnes a year, with rates expected to increase over coming years. Experts Gavin Mudd (Monash University) and Jonathon Law (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) expect it to be gone within 30 to 50 years (Mudd) and 56 years (Law).[39]

As of 2010, active iron ore mines in the Pilbara are:

Liquified natural gas

A significant part of Pilbara's economy is based on liquified natural gas (LNG) through the North West Shelf Venture and Pluto LNG plant, both operated by Woodside.


Millstream Homestead in Millstream-Chichester National Park

The region also has a number of cattle-grazing stations, and a substantial tourist sector, with popular natural attractions including the Karijini and Millstream-Chichester national parks and the Dampier Archipelago.


BHP iron ore train arriving at Port Hedland

The first railway in the Pilbara region was the narrow-gauge Marble Bar Railway between Port Hedland and Marble Bar. The Marble Bar Railway opened in July 1911 and closed in October 1951. The Roebourne-Cossack Tramway opened in 1897 and many industrial railways have been built to serve the mines.[41]

Five heavy-duty railways are associated with the various iron-ore mines. They are all standard gauge and built to the heaviest North American standards. Rio Tinto runs driverless trains on its railways.[42]


The ports of the Pilbara are:



The vibrant colours of the outback in Karijini National Park

The dominant flora of the Pilbara is acacia trees and shrubs and drought-resistant Triodia spinifex grasses. Several species of acacia (wattle) trees are endemic to the Pilbara and are the focus of conservation programs, along with wildflowers and other local specialities.

The Pilbara is home to a wide variety of endemic species adapted to this tough environment. There is a high diversity of invertebrates, including hundreds of species of subterranean fauna (both stygofauna and troglofauna), which are microscopic invertebrates that live in caves, vugs or groundwater aquifers of the region, and terrestrial fauna (see short-range endemic invertebrates). The Pilbara olive python, the western pebble-mound mouse, and the Pilbara ningaui of the Hamersley Range are among the many species of animals within the fragile ecosystems of this desert ecoregion. Birds include the Australian hobby, nankeen kestrel, spotted harrier, mulga parrot and budgerigars.

Wildlife has been damaged by the extraction of iron, natural gas and asbestos, but the protection of culturally and environmentally sensitive areas of the Pilbara is now enhanced by the delineation of several protected areas, including the Millstream-Chichester and the Karijini National Parks.


The western Pilbara is part of the Pilbara freshwater ecoregion, also known as the Pilbara-Gascoyne or Indian Ocean drainage basin. The freshwater region is characterized by intermittent rivers which form deep gorges, and brackish-water caves that host endemic species. The region includes the drainages of the Murchison, Gascoyne, Ashburton, Fortescue, and De Grey rivers. The Great Sandy Desert, which covers the eastern Pilbara, has little freshwater habitat.[43]

See also


  1. S.A. Halse; M.D. Scanlon; J.S. Cocking; H.J. Barron; J.B. Richardson; S.M. Eberhard (2014). "Pilbara stygofauna: deep groundwater of an arid landscape contains globally significant radiation of biodiversity" (PDF). Records of the Western Australian Museum. Supplement 78 (2): 443–483. doi:10.18195/issn.0313-122x.78(2).2014.443-483.
  2. Environment Australia. "Revision of the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA) and Development of Version 5.1 – Summary Report". Department of the Environment and Water Resources, Australian Government. Archived from the original on 5 September 2006. Retrieved 31 January 2007. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. "Australia's Biogeographical Regions - IBRA Version 6.1". www.deh.gov.au. Archived from the original on 17 February 2006. Retrieved 9 August 2022.
  4. "Pilbara Development Commission". Pdc.wa.gov.au. Retrieved 28 June 2022.
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics (31 March 2011). "Regional Population Growth, Australia, 2009–10 – Western Australia". Retrieved 28 August 2011.
  6. "Rangelands – Overview – Pilbara". Australian Natural Resources Atlas. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. 27 June 2009. Archived from the original on 22 August 2011. Retrieved 28 August 2011.
  7. "Regional Development Australia Pilbara". Retrieved 2 November 2020.
  8. Annual report 2015 – Pilbara ports authority. Port Hedland: PPA (Pilbara ports authority). 1 May 2016. Retrieved 1 June 2017.
  9. "Department of Health: Pilbara". Government of Western Australia. 19 January 2011. Retrieved 28 August 2011.
  10. Sharp, Janet; Thieberger, Nick (28 June 1992). Bilybara: The Aboriginal Languages of the Pilbara Region of Western Australia. Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre. ISBN 9780646107110. Retrieved 28 June 2022 via Google Books.
  11. "WA Gas Industry: Interesting Facts". nwsg.com.au. Archived from the original on 3 May 2006. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  12. "Fishes in groundwater dependent pools of the Fortescue and Yule rivers, Pilbara, Western Australia" (PDF). Water.wa.gov. Retrieved 28 June 2022.
  13. Hema Maps (1997). Discover Australia's National Parks. Milsons Point, New South Wales: Random House Australia. p. 274. ISBN 1-875-99247-2.
  14. Marwick, Ben (2002). "Milly's Cave: Evidence for Human Occupation of the Inland Pilbara during the Last Glacial Maximum". Tempus. 7: 21–33. ISSN 1323-6040.
  15. Olive, Noel (2007). Enough is Enough: A History of the Pilbara Mob. Fremantle Press. pp. 57–59. ISBN 978-1-921-06445-6. Retrieved 1 December 2011.
  16. "Articles About Pilbara Aboriginal History". www.wangkamaya.org.au. Archived from the original on 4 September 2010. Retrieved 9 August 2022.
  17. "Don McLeod – radical activist for Aboriginal justice in the Pilbara, Western Australia". ANU. 1 May 2018. Retrieved 30 November 2020.
  18. Coombs, H.C. (1994). Smith, Diane (ed.). Aboriginal Autonomy: Issues and Strategies. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. pp. 191–192. ISBN 0-521-44097-1. Retrieved 1 December 2011.
  19. "Biography of an Australian hero: interview with PhD alum Jan Richardson". Monash Indigenous Studies Centre. 19 February 2018. Retrieved 30 November 2020.
  20. Richardson, Jan (2017). 'They couldn't break me': Don McLeod, champion for Aboriginal justice in the Pilbara (PhD). Monash University. doi:10.4225/03/58c77be1332a6.
  21. Water and Indigenous People in the Pilbara CSIRO study, published: September 2011, accessed: 1 December 2011
  22. "Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability (CRCS) | Research Capabilities | Murdoch University in Perth Australia". Murdoch.edu.au. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  23. "Australian Psychological Society : Changing practices, changing paradigms: Working effectively with Indigenous clients". Archived from the original on 24 March 2012. Retrieved 28 February 2012.
  24. Griffiths, Max (2006). Aboriginal Affairs 1967–2005: Seeking a Solution. Dural, New South Wales: Rosenberg Publishing. p. 193. ISBN 1-877058-45-9. Retrieved 1 December 2011.
  25. Information, Reed Business (30 August 1984). "Royal Commission probes British nuclear tests in Australia". New Scientist (1419): 6. Retrieved 1 December 2011. {{cite journal}}: |first1= has generic name (help)
  26. Western Australia Aboriginal Communities. Department of Indigenous Affairs.
  27. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 August 2011. Retrieved 17 January 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  28. "Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability (CRCS) – Research Capabilities – Murdoch University in Perth Australia". Istp.murdoch.edu.au. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  29. Australian Human Rights Commission. "Indigenous Deaths in Custody: Chapter 6 Police Practices". Humanrights.gov.au. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  30. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 February 2012. Retrieved 3 December 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  31. Amos, Jonathan (22 August 2011). "Fossil microbes give sulphur insight on ancient Earth". BBC News. Retrieved 22 August 2011.
  32. Elizabeth Pennisi (21 August 2011). "World's Oldest Fossils Found in Ancient Australian Beach". ScienceNOW. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Archived from the original on 7 November 2011. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  33. "Marble Bar heatwave, 1923–1924". Australian Climate Extremes. Bureau of Meteorology. Archived from the original on 17 March 2009. Retrieved 21 September 2008.
  34. "Australian Climate Averages - Tropical cyclones". www.bom.gov.au. Archived from the original on 2 October 2009. Retrieved 9 August 2022.
  35. "Climate statistics". Bom.gov.au. Retrieved 3 January 2013.
  36. "BOM". Bureau of Meteorology.
  37. "The Pilbara's oil and gas industry is the region's largest export industry earning $5.0 billion in 2004/05 accounting for over 96% of the State's production". Pdc.wa.gov.au. Archived from the original on 19 July 2008. Retrieved 10 June 2008.
  38. "Stan Hilditch". Mining & Energy WA. Perth, WA: State Library of Western Australia. Retrieved 11 April 2019.
  39. Pincock, Stephen (14 July 2010). "Iron ore country". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
  40. "Mining Journal – Spinifex gets Chinese finance approval". 12 December 2010. Archived from the original on 11 December 2010. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
  41. Joyce, J. and Tilley, Allan, "Railways in the Pilbara," (1979). ISBN 0959969926.
  42. "Iron-ore railway automation project, Western Australia". Mineprocessing.com. 11 July 2008. Archived from the original on 14 July 2011. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
  43. "Archived copy". www.feow.org. Archived from the original on 27 July 2021. Retrieved 9 August 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

Further reading

  • Ellem, Braden (2017). The Pilbara: From the Deserts Profits Come. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing. ISBN 9781742589305.
  • Sharp, Janet, and Nicholas Thieberger. (1992). Aboriginal languages of the Pilbara Region: Bilybara. Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre, Port Hedland, WA.

This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.