Byron Bay's Clarkes Beach on December 14, 2020 (Image: AAP/Dan Peled)

At Byron Bay, Main Beach has collapsed into the sea. Across the north coast of New South Wales, surging tides and violent storms have led to the worst coastal erosion in years. But is this a one-off freak summer of flood or the new normal? The answer is… well, kind of both.

What’s going on in Byron Bay?

The situation at Byron, and northern NSW more broadly is down to the perfect storm of both short- and long-term factors, says University of Sydney professor Andrew Short. At Byron’s Main Beach, the unique movement of sand around the headland means every few years you get a situation where there’s less sand.

“It’s a totally natural thing that’s been going on for thousands of years,” Short said.

But this year, things are worse than they’ve been for a long time. The beaches were already vulnerable because of the cyclical movement of sand before the storms hit. And the storms are worse this season because we’re in a La Niña event — which brings east coast lows, severe storms and tropical cyclones. All perfect conditions for the kind of battering that’s hitting eastern Australia right now.

Is erosion getting worse?

Anecdotally, it seems like every year more beaches are falling into the sea. There’s the “lost beach” of Stockton near Newcastle, Inverloch in Victoria, McEwans in Queensland. But we shouldn’t worry about our beaches disappearing just yet, Short says.

“We’re monitoring sites along the coasts, and if you go to most of the coast it’s in good shape,” he told Crikey. 

Moreover, while climate change has intensified so many other natural processes — like the most devastating bushfire season in living memory last summer — it hasn’t had a clear impact on beach erosion so far in Australia.

“While we know sea levels are rising, we’re not as yet seeing any sea-level signal,” he said. “[But] we anticipate it will happen at some point in the future.”

According to a recent study in Nature, the world will lose half its sandy beaches by 2100.

What can we do about it?

The inevitability of beach erosion is a blessing and a curse. The good news, Short says, is there is more academic knowledge about sand movement and weather events than there’s ever been. That means state and local governments are better able to anticipate when erosion might get out of hand and prepare for it.

The bad news is there’s little we can do when faced with storms like we’re seeing in northern NSW.

“It’s very hard to stop beach erosion. You can prepare, but you try stopping those waves,” Short said.

 “You can’t turn the sea back.”