(Image: AAP/UNSW Water Research Laboratory)

Australia is crumbling into the sea. Experts estimate there are hundreds of beaches and coastal communities around the country at risk from coastal erosion. Within decades, as sea levels rise, that number could be in the thousands.

Last year, the Western Australian state government identified 55 “hotspots” where coastal erosion is expected to cause serious issues within 25 years. Towns up and down the coast are seeing roads washed away, and buildings and homes under threat.

In July last year, WA Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan told the ABC that dumping sand on the coast to try and hold the sea back was not a viable long-term solution. Entire coastal communities would simply need to retreat.

It’s the same all over the country. Sections of Victoria’s iconic Great Ocean Road risk being washed away within five years. At Inverloch, south east of Melbourne, erosion has melted away a remarkable 50 metres of the coast in seven years — including 20 metres since the beginning of 2019. Truckloads of imported sand and a “wet” sand fence have been dumped as protection. The remedy has failed.

In the “lost suburb” of Stockton, Newcastle, the damage has been so severe that the only local childcare centre has been permanently closed. Residents are considering a class action. At Shellharbour, south of Sydney, 94 homes and several public assets are at risk from erosion and sea level rise. Clarkes Beach has been stripped back to the dunes. This is happening in South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

How did we get here? Erosion has always been a problem for Australia’s coastline. Sometimes it’s a natural reality of a particular environment. In other cases, it’s exacerbated by decades of short-sighted development. And as the impacts of climate change become more acute, things are going to get a lot worse.

Rising sea levels and more frequent, unexpected and severe weather events create huge risks for many of these communities, pointing to a future where more and more beaches go. With them go surf clubs, roads, shops, homes.

How did things get so bad?

Victorian Marine and Coastal Council chair Anthony Boxshall told Inq the best way to avoid losing coastal communities and infrastructure was to “avoid putting things in dumb places that are going to flood”.

“Of course, a lot of that is already done now,” he said. “There are communities that have been set up in places that, if you knew then what we know now, you wouldn’t set them up … So we’re currently dealing with the bad decisions that have been made.”

WA is littered with these communities, built right up to a coast that’s now melting away in front of them. And the patchwork of ownership of and responsibility for coastal regions — varying from state to state but usually split between state governments, local councils and private owners  — means solutions have frequently been localised, stopgap and short term.

“My main gripe is people are so often reactive, rather than proactive,” Dr Mick O’Leary, a senior lecturer at University of Western Australia, told Inq. People, he added, were focused on the most economical individual solutions, rather than looking at the coast as a linked system. “You can’t look at these things in isolation.”

Millions have been spent dumping sand and building seawalls, and still the sea advances. In some cases, the defensive measures have made things worse. Andrew Short, a professor at the University of Sydney who has spent his career surveying Australia’s beaches, said seawalls tend to protect the interests of private property owners on the coast at the expense of the beaches — a point echoed by O’Leary.

“As soon as you put any kind of coastal infrastructure, you mess up the sediment balance,” O’Leary said. “A seawall just moves the problem somewhere else.”

The climate challenge

According to Short, while we don’t see any climate-exacerbated erosion yet, it certainly will cause problems in coming years. The retreat of the coast — the net removal of sediments or bedrock from the shoreline — is typically driven by waves and currents.

This is generally a slow but inexorable process, sometimes accelerated by extreme weather events, coastal storms and tidal surges. As well as causing sea levels to rise, climate change will make extreme weather events worse and more common.

O’Leary, for his part, said increased erosion was “absolutely climate related”.

“For example on the east coast, a lot of beaches are supplied by rivers. Drought reduces that flow, so they don’t receive as much sediment,” he said.

“There are two main drivers in increased erosion. Firstly, energy — the size and power of the waves — and the other is wave direction. If waves start coming from a different direction, the beach will begin to reorient.” 

And of course, whatever action we take on climate change, the seas are going to rise.

“It’s very likely to get worse,” Boxshall told Inq. “Even with Paris Agreement targets we’re locked in for 30-60cm of sea level rise. This is locked in. But if it’s a train wreck, we have the advantage that we can see the train coming and adapt.

“With Paris targets in place we have to adapt. Without Paris, we have to adapt a whole lot more. It will be a while but we have to think in crisis mode. We have to have that conversation now.”

Next: Australia’s erosion hot spots