We will not go down to the sea. It will come to us

On Christmas Eve, 2013, I received a gift that felt as though it had come from the sea herself. I was at the mouth of the Moruya River on the New South Wales south coast at a spot called Preddys Wharf.

It is a magical and marvellous location, with a small wooden jetty, where children can cast a line, and bull rays, the size of small cars, feed off the scraps of gutted fish. The water sliding past the wharf, first one way and then the other as the tide ebbs and flows, is crystal clear and deep.

Starting before dawn, boats are launched from the adjacent ramp, coming and going until after dark. It is no wilderness. Rather, it is a scene that could be described as Australian Coastal: a classic example of the mythological soul of our waterfront nation where people and the marine environment meet.

That Christmas Eve it was dusk and I walked to a park bench near the wharf looking out towards the ocean. As I turned to sit I noticed that on the seat someone had anonymously placed a laminated poem and then weighed it down with a rock that was covered in so much bleached coralline algae that it looked more like a snowball, with an odd tuft of lace.

The poem was by John Masefield, written in 1902, and I could see why the secret poet bomber of Preddys Wharf had chosen to place it there:

“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.”

John Masefield

Masefield’s ocean is the romantic British one of tall ships and seagulls.

But now we must prepare for a different kind of ocean — one that is inexorably coming to get us and which will change our lives, our beaches and our cities forever.

The sea has always had a malevolent side — the power to crash ships and drown swimmers.

Since people began building near the beach, king tides have wreaked havoc with low-lying coastal infrastructure.

Sea levels rising and falling up to hundreds of metres is a story re-told on Earth multiple times over the past hundred million years.

But this time is different. We are now the cause of the climate change. We are directly in the way of the rising tide, and yet paralysed into inaction because of the scale of what is required to respond to the problem.

When I visit those beaches I have known all my life, like Manly in Sydney or Dalmeny, near the south coast town of Narooma, I am always relieved that, aside from the cyclical shifts of the sand from one end of the beach to the other, the jutting rocks and other parts of the scenes I have loved since I was a toddler all look to be in the right place.

When I visit these places of my childhood and see that the structure of the beach looks to be the same, I can feel the pull of the argument that all this talk of climate change must be wrong.

But it is a false sense of security — sentimentality is blind to changes that are still measured in centimetres.

I remember in the 1990s, when experts first started warning about global warming and predicting the devastation of the Great Barrier Reef, rainforests, endangered species and the Murray-Darling Basin — and I thought they were catastrophising.

And yet look at the last few years: the reef bleached beyond recognition, rainforests that shouldn’t burn, blackened.

Almost the entire length of the NSW portion of the Great Eastern Ranges has been incinerated in fires the likes of which have not been seen before.

The Murray-Darling Basin system is now a series of over exploited and fought-over puddles. All of these ecosystems are somewhere between going and gone. We are now living in the world of the predictions from the 1990s come true.

But the part that hasn’t really sunk into us is this: what are the consequences of those predictions coming true?

Now so many predictions have been proved right, we must now accept those predictions that have not yet happened.

And sea level rise is the big one. We must now start to act on the predictions that we will see a sea level rise this century of at least 60 centimetres and possibly a lot more.

That might not sound like much. But then imagine the day when a king tide, a storm surge, erosion and sea level rise strike simultaneously.

When that day comes, the seat at Preddys Wharf, where I found the Masefield poem seven years ago, and much, much more along the Australian coast will be washed away.

We will not go down to the sea. It will come to us.

James Woodford is the author of seven books including the Great Barrier Reef and Great White.

Five things to be done on coastal erosion

We can’t really sugar-coat it: Australia’s coastline is collapsing. But according to the experts, there are things that can be done to slow the effects of this erosion. Many come with a price.

1. Action on climate change

Ultimately, this is the key going forward; every expert Inq spoke to agreed that the effects of climate change will accelerate coastal erosion in vulnerable spots.

A certain amount of erosion — sometimes a lot — is natural and unavoidable. Indeed, some sites would almost certainly have experienced similar levels of erosion regardless of the current impacts of climate change.

However, climate change brings about rising sea levels — for sandy coastlines, the generally accepted rule is that one metre will be lost for each centimetre of sea level rise, and sea levels could rise by as much as 100 centimetres by the end of the century. It also causes more frequent and extreme storms. In combination, the impact of climate change on erosion will be huge in years to come.

As Zita Sebesvari, Head of Environmental Vulnerability and Ecosystem Services at United Nations University, writes in The Conversation: “How far the oceans rise will depend a great deal on what we do in the next few decades. Whether emissions can be restrained and sharply reduced will mean the difference between manageable disruption and catastrophic inundation.”

Sebesvari goes on to point out that healthy coastal ecosystems — like marshes, mangrove swaps and wetlands — both stabilise coastlines and have a role to play in retaining carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

2. Better planning

While substantial emission reduction will eventually slow sea level rise, we still have the issue of what happens to people in erosion hot spots right now. As Victorian Marine and Coastal Council chair Associate Professor Anthony Boxshall told Inq, the best way to avoid losing coastal communities and infrastructure is to “avoid putting things in dumb places that are going to flood”.

Professor Andrew Short of the University of Sydney agrees: “the present problem is local and state governments have allowed development in what we call the coast hazard zone.”

While this is scant consolation for communities such as Seabird or Ledge Point or Stockton — who are all having to entertain the possibility of a “managed retreat” from their homes and businesses —  it’s helpful for new developments. There are now erosion-based building restrictions being put in place in WA and Victoria.

Professor Short said that apart from these restrictions on development, state and local governments should introduce a buyback scheme where past development has occurred, much like what has previously been implemented for people who built on floodplains.

Such a scheme would be expensive and would need federal support to occur, Short said. 

3. A national strategy

In March 2019, the Western Australian government identified 55 “hotspots” where coastal erosion is expected to cause serious issues within 25 years. In response to this, WA Premier Mark McGowan called for “a national co-ordinated response”.

“I want to have a mature conversation with the Commonwealth about how we jointly address this issue that’s going to dramatically impact communities and infrastructure for decades, if not centuries, to come.”

Of course, part of what McGowan has in mind is help with the potentially huge costs of management (in WA, estimated at $110 million over the next five years). But he’s not alone in thinking a more comprehensive plan is necessary.

The scientists we spoke to said that, until now, responses have too often been reactive, stop gap and uncoordinated; they look at individual beaches, rather than recognising a coastline as one system. It is, as University of Western Australia senior lecturer Dr Mick O’Leary put it, a long “river of sand”.

4. Avoiding man-made sea structures

Coastal infrastructure is generally indicative of this kind of short-term thinking. Seawalls can be effective in one location, but they often just move the problem somewhere else.

Short told Inq seawalls tend to protect the interests of private property owners on the coast at the expense of the beach.

The New South Wales coastal management plan (which also wants federal help) acknowledges this. “Unless seawalls are constructed in coordination with all affected landowners, you can actually cause a situation where erosion is exacerbated at either end of the seawall, damaging adjacent properties. There needs to be coordination of effort,” NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes said through a spokesperson.

At the same time, coastal structures — such as the breakwaters and a deep water channel in Stockton — just make erosion worse, disrupting wave patterns and preventing beaches from receiving new sand.

5. Sand barriers

Sand replenishment — as is used on the Gold Coast, where sand is dredged and pumped off shore by barges — can be effective, but it’s also very expensive and has to be undertaken again and again.

It’s also been known to disturb local sealife. Onshore, sand dunes can slow the retreat of the coast; however man-made dunes and transplanted vegetation can disrupt local habitats and food chains. Natural dunes and vegetation are more durable, but slow forming.

What will unite us when the beaches are gone?

I wonder what people around the world answer when asked what defines “Australia” or “Australian culture”.

Perhaps it’s a few distinctive food items: lamingtons, Tim Tams and meat pies; or instead it’s climate-denial, racism and an over-reliance on the Murdoch press. Maybe some people, when considering what defines us, imagine Western Desert dot painting, the music and bark-painting of the Yolngu people and, sadly, fake art boomerangs.

However, I suspect that what defines Australia to most of the rest of the world is beaches — how beautiful our beaches are and how much Australians adore them.

Beaches loom large in Australia’s identity. The Sydney suburb of Bondi is known around the world, predominantly because of its beach. Australia’s best remembered and almost certainly most culturally significant modern race riot, in Cronulla, started over a dispute at a beach and, to my mind, was driven by white Australia’s belief that beaches hold a sacred significance in its culture.

The south coast of Western Australia, from which my Noongar family arose, is renowned for its beautiful white beaches. The town of Esperance, at the eastern end of south-coast Noongar country, tends to self-promote with pictures of kangaroos on pristine white beaches. Can it get more Aussie than that? These pictures, Kangaroos on a beach, are the Instagram posts many tourists try to capture when they visit the area.

It can hardly be disputed that the beach plays an important part in the culture of Australia. Even I have spent much of my life on beaches, as a child holidaying down the coast from Perth and as an adult walking, fishing and caravanning. My favourite place on earth is a rock on the beach on the south coast of WA. My will specifies that my ashes are to be cast into the sea there.

Love of beaches seems to know no boundaries; people of all cultural backgrounds and political affiliations in Australia love the beach. With 90% of Australians living within 100kms of the coast it could be argued that beaches are the only thing capable of uniting us.

This is why coastal erosion, particularly the erosion of beach sand, has the potential to rip into the heart of all that Australians think we are.

I don’t know for certain what will happen to Australia and the nation’s identity if certain famous beaches disappear; or what will happen if iconic coastal towns are swept away into the sea. It will, however, be a deep wound in what we think of as our culture. The loss will puncture the heart of what this nation thinks it is.

The problem is, of course, that this wounding assault is already happening. Industrial modification of a coast changes the currents; dredging can also modify them. Changing the current sweeps sand from the beaches, helping the ocean eat the coast. Storms are more frequent now. One big storm can move an entire beach.

When we factor in sea-level rise, the effects on beaches and coastal towns can be brutal and catastrophic. Some beaches may be saved in the short term, as local governments import or transfer sand, but eventually much of the current coast of Australia will be lost forever.

This includes iconic buildings, beloved beaches and some of the most expensive real estate on the continent.

There are already victims, some of which you are not aware of; some whose plight is ignored by the news media that would rather show you a mansion falling into the sea.

The Torres Strait Islands (TSI), a group of islands populated almost entirely by Indigenous peoples, are in genuine danger of being swept away by sea-level rise and coastal erosion. Their danger is not in some distant future. Some island communities have already been affected.

But the problem is not unique to the TSI communities. Aboriginal people around the continent hold coastal areas sacred — areas which will be permanently changed by coast alteration (by governments), coastal erosion and sea level-rise.

I often question what happens to a culture, to stories, to people when those cultures arose in places that no longer exist. I wonder what will happen when vast areas of Australia’s coast have been eroded away, when suburbs and entire cities on the coast become unliveable, when increased storms and more dangerous bushfires destroy what’s left.

It’s impossible to imagine what changes may occur to Australia’s identity but there is one thing we can be relatively certain of: the upheavals of today will change Australia.

Claire G. Coleman is a writer from Western Australia and the author of Terra Nullius and The Old Lie. She identifies with the South Coast Noongar people. Her family are associated with the area around Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.

When the sea claims your house, who do you sue? It’s legal quicksand

If the seas reclaim your front yard — or your whole house — who can you sue? It’s a question lawyers are going to be addressing more urgently, as coastlines are radically redrawn.

There’s this eternal truth: coasts erode. If you build on the shoreline, sooner or later you’ll be in the drink, even if that takes a millennium or two.  No law will compensate you for Mother Nature’s revenge.

Direct human intervention — such as dredging of shipping channels, seawalls, artificial harbours — impacts on coastal ecology in dramatic and often unpredicted ways. Mackay, McEwens Beach and Stockton are clear examples.

Then there’s the link between coastal recession generally and climate change, of which the most obvious relevant impact is rising sea levels but which has multiple interlocking consequences including run-off and vegetation loss.

The combination of these factors will do a judge’s head in, trying to apportion legal responsibility when somebody’s property has slipped beneath the waves. At this stage, the law is a long way from figuring that out. 

Where are we currently at, legally?

Under Australian law, the notionally easiest paths to compensation are by claims of negligence or nuisance. That means proving that someone (the defendant) owes a duty to the affected property owners and has failed in that duty, either by act or omission.

The more obvious the cause of the loss, the more simple the legal case will be. If the government, council or a private company built a seawall that caused the neighbouring beach to disappear and take everyone’s beach shacks with it, then those owners may have a theoretically straightforward case for damages. It’s never that simple, however, because the defendant can point to the inherent complexity of coastal erosion, including the effects of climate change, for which it is not responsible. The beach might have been terminal anyway.

The United States has seen a raft of civil actions against oil and gas companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron, suing for nuisance, negligence or trespass on the basis of their alleged failure to limit the volume of fossil fuels they have pumped into the atmosphere, and its impact on communities and private property.

The role of government

A more obvious defendant on the climate change front might be the federal government. The UN’s Human Rights Committee recently delivered a landmark ruling, confirming the critical role of governments in stopping rising sea levels. It said that “without robust national and international efforts, the effects of climate change … may expose individuals to a violation of their rights” to life and to be free from degrading treatment, for example by having access to safe drinking water. This was in the context of a claim by Kiribati citizens for asylum (Kiribati being one of the first nations that will go under as the oceans rise).

The argument is that national governments have legal responsibility for the liveability of our environment, and may become liable for the consequences of climate change if they negligently fail to take steps to mitigate its effects.

Civil claims against governments and corporations have had limited success so far, often being dismissed because of the impossibility of directly linking the defendant’s conduct to the physical cause of the loss. An academic called Douglas Kysar put the problem clearly: climate change is “a collective-action problem so pervasive and so complicated as to render at once both all of us and none of us responsible”.  The courts don’t like that kind of uncertainty.

A two-way street

In one sense, there’s a good argument that the law needs to urgently adapt in response to the fact of climate change and the consequences of failure to deal with it. This would require a far more flexible understanding of causation and legal liability.

On the other hand, the increasing obviousness of the effects of climate change cuts both ways. The law has always applied a principle called voluntary assumption of risk; if you build your house under water, don’t be surprised (and don’t blame anyone else) when it leaks. We all know the beaches are under threat. Mitigation of risk is, like climate change itself, the responsibility of no single person or institution. Basically, don’t buy beachfront land.

There are other, more exotic possibilities for litigation in Australia, as yet untried. One is the constitutionally protected right to compensation when your property is compulsorily acquired by the federal government. Sooner or later someone will have a crack at claiming that the government’s climate policies involve, through the inevitability of their consequences, the acquisition of coastal property by allowing it to disappear. Kind of a conscious choice: the price of keeping fossil fuel industry jobs being paid by coastal property owners who lose their land. Novel argument, but worth a try.

The other field is human rights, including the right to not be arbitrarily deprived of property. Europe, the US and Latin America have seen cases against governments that engage the interplay between human rights violations and environmental law. In Australia, the problem with following suit is that we have no enshrined human rights, so all those international conventions we’ve signed up to aren’t actually part of our law.  We’ll need a bill of rights before this becomes a real prospect.

The one thing we can say for sure is that, as more beaches disappear, more litigation will follow.

Michael Bradley is managing partner of Marque Lawyers. Kiera Peacock specialises in public law and environmental justice at Marque.

The science behind our vanishing beaches

Australia’s coastlines are naturally dynamic. Processes of erosion, transportation and accretion (the build-up of sediments) shift and shape the coastline. Erosion can have dramatic impacts during storms, when winds and waves are strong. But this is often just a short-term impact, with sediment gradually regained over weeks and months, either dumped back by the sea or deposited from inland sources via rivers and creeks.

These processes are largely driven by climate and climate driven ocean processes — currents, wind, waves and storms. These climate drivers mean our coastal areas are already vulnerable to damage. Climate change will worsen those risks.

What will be intensified and changed by the climate emergency?

Climate change will bite in a number of ways. Sea level rise combined with intense storms pose the greatest erosion and damage risk. Sea level rise increases the height of waves while storms generate powerful waves and winds that produce storm tides and as a result, erosion.

Wave climate is also likely to change — although this can both increase or decrease erosion. Likewise changes in rainfall and runoff can go either way. Dry conditions will reduce sediment run-off, while high intensity rainfall increases landward erosion and run-off.

The recent drought, fire and subsequent storms demonstrated what the combined impact of these extremes might look like.

What do impacts and risks look like?

Urbanisation, industrial development, and recreational pressures have transformed the coastal zone. In some places, public foreshore reserves act as a buffer to settlements. In other places, homes and businesses are directly exposed to coastal risks.

Erosion of dunes and beaches can cause damage to structures by reducing the stability of foundations, settling buildings or directly undercutting structures. At its worse this might mean properties collapsing onto beaches.

Recreation facilities like beach access stairs, pathways, and parks are on the front-line, but surf lifesaving clubs, roads, businesses and homes are at risk too. Any damage is likely to be both expensive and inconvenient. For some properties or structures there may even become a point at which it becomes more cost effective and practical to relocate.

So how do we prepare?

As a community, we have to start deciding what must be protected, and how and when; where we will let nature take its course; how and if we need to modify the way we live and work near the coast; and so on.

The first challenge is deciding where and what the risks are. While we know the whole coastline will experience the impacts of climate change and sea level rise, the impacts will create different risks. Sandy coasts are much more vulnerable to erosion than rocky coasts; wave climate differs from place to place; different parts of the coast have more or less development etc.

Climate projections, particularly at the local level, come with a degree of certainty and probability. The further we look into the future, the more extraneous factors are unknown — for example, will global policy succeed in bringing down greenhouse emissions so we can plan for two degrees of warming? Or will emissions continue to increase so we must plan for four or five?

The second challenge is to decide what we are prepared to live with. In adaptation we talk about four responses.

  1. Avoid the risk — don’t build there

  2. Accommodate the risk — build but design for the risk

  3. Protect against the risk — engineer defences like seawalls

  4. Retreat from risk — plan to move out of harm’s way.

For existing home owners, protection tends to be favoured. It’s understandable, but aside from the cost, if Australia builds a seawall fortress, we risk losing exactly what we love about our coastline.

The alternative for existing properties is managed or planned retreat. But this is a highly contentious approach. The Byron Shire Council adopted a policy of “planned retreat” in the 1970s, but has found that private property owners are fiercely protective of their property rights and are fighting for protection measures.

It’s clear that our coastal communities will be radically changed, and we are seeing these changes already. The way forward demands difficult conversations and challenging decisions. While scientific information is essential to understand the risks and impacts, communities and governments must continue to come together to map a path through many competing interests and views to plan the future for their coastal towns.

Dr Sarah Boulter is a research fellow with National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

The tide is coming: why our beaches are vanishing

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

The tragedy of the horizon: why action is needed now

This is part three of Australia’s Collapsing Coast. Read parts one and two here.

More than 85% of Australia’s population lives within 50km of a coastline that is crumbling into the sea.

Experts estimate there are hundreds of beaches and coastal communities around the country that are either in the process of collapsing, or at risk of doing so.

Within decades, as sea levels rise and coasts continue to erode, that number could be in the thousands.

According to the Climate Council, over half the Australian coastline is vulnerable to recession from rising sea level. 80% of the Victorian coast and 62% of the Queensland coast is at risk.

During the last century, global sea levels rose about 15cm. Seas are now rising at more than twice that rate — 3.6mm per year. And that rate is continuing to accelerate.

Victorian Marine and Coastal Council chair Anthony Boxshall told Inq that even with our Paris Agreement targets, a further 30-60cm of sea level rise is locked in. Australia is not on track to meet its Paris targets.

So what is to be done? On this front there is some good news, and a lot of extremely bad news.

While some communities may have no choice but to retreat, individual beaches can possibly be saved. Professor Andrew Short of the University of Sydney told Inq beach nourishment — artificially pumping sand onto the beach, as is done on the Gold Coast — would be a good option for more popular beaches.

“It might be expensive, but then you’ve got to put a dollar value on what Bondi’s worth,” Short said. “When you look at it from a cost-benefit analysis, it would be a very good way to go.”

The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility spent years mapping Australia’s coasts, giving us the most complete picture yet of high erosion hotspots, and some idea of what these areas will look like by the end of the century. It worked with decision makers like local councils on how to adapt to rising sea levels. However, the facility’s federal funding dried up in 2018, and there are no plans for it to resume.

Faced with the federal government’s recalcitrance, local councils who are at the coalface of the battle are taking matters into their own hands. In July last year, Noosa Shire Council became the first local government area in Queensland to declare a climate emergency. While erosion hasn’t escalated there yet, Noosa Mayor Tony Wellington told Inq that a 0.8 metre sea level rise could put 2000 properties at risk.

Wellington also said that while the climate emergency declaration was symbolic, they were backing it up with real action.

“In 2016, the council announced an emissions reduction policy, which included a commitment to zero net emissions by 2026, and the following year, we developed our coastal hazard adaptation plan,” Wellington said. 

Noosa’s commitment is about ensuring climate-related risks are considered across all council areas, particularly around development. But even that has drawn opposition — Wellington said the emergency declaration was met with “bouquets and brickbats”, and the council could face legal challenges over some of its climate-related planning decisions.

Whatever the solution, it will require a level of national coordination that’s not been evident so far.

“You can’t look at these things in isolation,” Dr Mick O’Leary, a senior lecturer at University of Western Australia, told Inq. “It’s a river of sand that runs along the coast.”

In any event, pumping in sand or setting up a seawall won’t address the biggest threat to the future of our beaches: the systemic failure of climate change policy in this country. Indeed, an ominous clue can be found in the approach taken by insurance companies. Although it is possible to obtain insurance for storm surge and erosion, no insurance company offers cover for sea-level rise.

For many communities and much of the infrastructure close to the ocean, the future is sealed; erosion is a natural process. Climate change is going to make it worse. The tide cannot be stopped.

Boxshall said that until recently, it was easier to delay acting on climate change because the consequences seemed so distant.

“They call it the tragedy of the horizon.”

‘The waves are going to be crashing through their door’: the erosion hot spots

This is part two of Australia’s Collapsing Coast. Read part one here

The crisis of Australia’s collapsing beaches has myriad impacts. Every state is seeing infrastructure, homes, development plans and in some cases entire communities under threat.

Inverloch, Victoria

At Inverloch, south east of Melbourne, erosion has sheared off 50 metres of beach and shoreline in just seven years — including 20 metres since January, 2019. The most immediate point of danger is the local surf lifesaving club.

Inverloch, 2010 (Image: Google Earth)
Inverloch 2018 (Image: Google Earth)

The councils have trucked in sand and deployed a “wet” sand fence for protection, but this tactic has failed. The Bass Coast Shire Council has made it clear that, beyond the normal level of erosion, it believes the extent of this change is due in part to climate change and rising seas.

Two Rocks, Western Australia

Home to the kitsch of the abandoned Atlantis Marine Park, Two Rocks sits roughly 60km north of Perth. Within 100 years, erosion is expected to have spread a further 170 metres. This will threaten, among other things, development in the area. A group of developers planned to use 834 hectares of dune vegetation for a huge residential estate with 12,000 homes.

Two Rocks, 2002 (Image: Google Earth)
Two Rocks, 2019 (Image: Google Earth)

Experts argued this would harm the health of the vegetation as the coast eroded, thus hastening the erosion. The WA Planning Commission required the developers’ plan to cede enough land to not only allow for what would be underwater but enough to form a new foreshore in 100 years. The developers challenged this decision at the State Administrative Tribunal, which eventually determined the plan hadn’t provided enough of a buffer zone.

McEwens Beach, Queensland

McEwens Beach in northern Queensland has lost 70 metres in roughly 50 years. A draft local coast plan presented in September 2019 highlighted the region’s vulnerabilities: climate change, sea level rise and associated erosion, and the loss of the native vegetation strip which buffered homes from the beach.

McEwens Beach 2005 (Image: Google Earth)
McEwens Beach 2017 (Image: Google Earth)

“These people here are faced with another couple of big cyclone seasons and the waves are going to be crashing through their front door,” Mayor Greg Williamson told The Daily Mercury at the time.

The Daily Mercury, September 16, 2019.

Williamson and his council are facing similar problems up and down the Mackay region’s 32 beaches. Trees planted near the shore in Bucasia to support the dunes were cut, apparently for a better view.

“What they don’t realise,” Williamson told The New York Times, “is that if these dunes aren’t here, they’re not going to have a house or a view.”

West Beach, South Australia

According to a state government-funded report by the Danish Hydraulic Institute, about 500,000 cubic metres of sand has disappeared from West Beach since the late ’90s. The rate of this loss has accelerated since about 2011.

West Beach, 2002 (Image: Google Earth)
West Beach, 2019 (Image: Google Earth)

It is on a kind of life support from its northern neighbour Semaphore South, with hundreds of thousands of cubic metres being carted from one beach to the other. The sand is promptly returned to Semaphore by the tides.

Sand replenishment will cost the state government nearly $50 million over the next four years. It’s “a very temporary solution and expensive to boot” as Victor Gostin, a former University of Adelaide associate professor in geology and sedimentology, told the ABC.

Stockton, New South Wales

Locals in Stockton believe they are, as far as the local council and state government are concerned, a “lost suburb”.

Stockton, 2005 (Image: Google Earth)
Stockton, 2019 (Image: Google Earth)

Last September, a section of their beach lost 2.5 metres in sand height in the space of five hours. The town’s only childcare centre had to be closed for fear it would be washed away.

A rally took to the beach to demand action to protect their communities. Protesters planned to spell out SOS (“Save our Stockton”), but too many people showed up and the beach could no longer accommodate them.

Stockton has lost around 70 metres from the beach since 1981 — a rate accelerating all the time — and the seabed has dropped more than seven metres in the last century.

This is not natural erosion of the same kind faced by many beaches. Associate professor Ron Boyd of Newcastle University’s School of Environmental and Life Sciences said that infrastructure — breakwaters and a deep water channel to allow big ships access to the port — has caused Stockton to lose too much sand.

The wave pattern has been disrupted and, as a result, new sand is not being delivered. In the long run, it simply won’t recover.

Stockton also points to an apparent disparity between a response to the problem in regional centres as opposed to cities: West Beach or areas of the Gold Coast can rely on expensive sand replenishment.

“If this was happening in Bondi, it would be fixed in a heartbeat,” Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp told the SMH.

The images in this piece are of areas that have experienced serious erosion though in some cases factors such as the tide position or the spread of vegetation on the shore may increase the effect.

Next: What can we do to stop the collapse?