1. Northern Australia is characterised by a tropical wet–dry climate that regulates the distinctive character of river flow regimes across the region. There is marked hydrological seasonality, with most flow occurring over only a few months of the year during the wet season. Flow is also characterised by high variability between years, and in the degree of flow cessation, or intermittency, over the dry season.
2. At present, the relatively low human population density and demand for water in the region means that most rivers have largely unmodified flow regimes. These rivers therefore provide a good opportunity to understand the role of natural flow variability in river ecosystem structure and processes.
3. This review describes the major flow regime classes characterising northern Australian rivers, from perennial to seasonally intermittent to extremely intermittent, and how these regimes give rise to marked differences in the ecological character of these tropical rivers, particularly their floodplains.
4. We describe the key features of these flow regimes, namely the wet and dry seasons and the transitions between these seasons, and how they regulate the biophysical heterogeneity, primary productivity and movement of biota in Australia’s wet–dry tropical rivers.
5. We develop a conceptual model that predicts the likely hydrological and ecological consequences of future increases in water abstraction (e.g. for agriculture), and suggest how such impacts can be managed so that the distinctive ecological character of these rivers is maintained.