What Can Surfers Expect As A Result Of Climate Change In Our Lifetime & Beyond?

15 May 2008 1

Story by Former CW Editor Ben Horvath

The exposed seawall of Collaroy / South Narrabeen after the June 2016 swell, Photo by Mark Onorati

The exposed seawall of Collaroy / South Narrabeen after the June 2016 swell, Photo by Mark Onorati

Story Originally published in 2008
Photo by Mark Onorati 

In May 2008, a comprehensive vulnerability assessment report was released by CSIRO and the Sydney Coastal Councils Group. (Mapping coastal Sydney’s vulnerability to climate change) Different areas of Australia will experience climate change in different ways depending on their geographic location, demographics, and the resources and tools at their disposal to manage future climate change risk. In order to grasp and understand the potential changes we are facing as a tribe of coastalwatchers I could think of no one more qualified and appropriate to talk to then Professor Andrew Short.

Professor Andrew Short is a long time North Narrabeen resident who has relocated to the south coast. Andrew was Director of the University of Sydney’s Coastal Studies Unit from 1982-2007. He is also the author of 12 books including seven covering every beach in Australia. Andrews’s son Ben is a former North Narrabeen Boardriders junior champion. These days Ben is a regular in one of the strongest open teams in the land. The Short family never venture far from the ocean. 


BEN HORVATH: From a purely selfish surfers perspective, what do you think we can expect will be some obvious changes in terms of sea level rises in simplistic language in our lifetime Andy?

PROFESSOR ANDREW SHORT: Andrew Short: Not a lot. Sea level will rise between 20-80 cm between now and 2100, which will result is a retreat of the beaches by between 2 and 8 m. However as they are already in oscillation (erosion & recovery cycles) as much as 100 m, the small net shift will be hard to detect. What it will mean is when there are major storm events the beaches will erode that little bit more than ever before.

The higher sea levels will impact the way waves break on all reef and point breaks – some will get better as closeout sections become more makeable, others will get fuller.

SEE ALSO: Impact Of Coastal Erosion In Australia

Wetherill St at Sth Narrabeen.  The ocean is getting closer each storm

Wetherill St at Sth Narrabeen. The ocean is getting closer each storm

Professor Andy Short says rising sea levels will mean waves like Shark Island will gradually become fuller over coming decades and current dry rock shelves will become rideable.. The Island.

Professor Andy Short says rising sea levels will mean waves like Shark Island will gradually become fuller over coming decades and current dry rock shelves will become rideable.. The Island.

BH: Using famous examples like say “Ours” or Shark Island, will breaks like that possibly fatten out into Green Island style set ups as a result of projected rising sea levels.

AS: Yes, they will get fuller in some sections owing to the deeper water. However, the rise over the next 100 years is still less than the typical difference between high and low tide. So these and other breaks will behave more and more like they do at high tide today.

Another angle of Sth Narrabeen storm erosion.

Another angle of Sth Narrabeen storm erosion.

BH: Conversely can we expect rock shelves that are currently exposed to become the new “Ours” or Shark Island, and over what time frame?

AS: Yes, the places that are presently unrideable will become increasingly more makeable, and new breaks may start to perform

BH: The commonly referred to risk locations like South Narrabeen, Cronulla (The Wall), Belongil at Byron, Gold Coast etc, what level of erosion can we really expect?

AS: As I mentioned above when the big storms come they will erode back further than ever before – so watch out if you have a beachfront in any of these locations. These will be the first places to really feel the impact of rising sea level and any changes in wave climate.

BH: What if we were to put that into a real estate perspective – would you recommend South Narrabeen or Belongil as a safe beachfront investment for example?

AS: In the short term – YES, beachfront real estate continues to go through the roof, even if the foundations are being undermined. In the long term, however, don’t expect to leave the house to your grandchildren. It’s a matter of timing and hoping no big storms come through while your there.

SEE ALSO: The Biggest East Coast Swell Of A Generation

The wall at Cronulla

The wall at Cronulla

BH: Staying on that theme obviously insurance firms and councils will need to adapt?

AS: Yes and this is already happening. The best way to control inappropriate development, such as in the high-risk locations, is not to insure them or charge very high premiums. Councils have been doing their best but even some of their attempts to stop such development have been overturned by the Land and Environment Court. They need a unified approach, such as through the Sydney Coastal Councils group, they need a common approach and need to get extra state and federal funding to implement plans such as massive sand nourishment, buy back of property and in some case constructions of sea defences.

BH: How about governments – the former Howard government seemed to me to be asleep at the wheel on the topic. Is the new Rudd gov more pro active?

AS: Yes, Howard was and maybe still is a climate change sceptic, some of his past ministers still are. The Rudd government has already taken the initiative and already has a Standing Committee (under Peter Garrett)inquiring into the impacts of climate change on coastal communities. However, like all inquiries, we will have to wait and see what comes of it. I am however hopeful.

The wall at Cronulla

The wall at Cronulla

BH: How about generally at state and council level?

AS: Climate change has been embraced by all the states and I assume most if not all local governments. However they both need big federal dollars to implement mitigation, adoption and retreat plans.

BH: What can we as surfers do individually?

AS: The same as anyone else in the community. Minimise your footprint. They also need to be vocal in protecting their surf if it is to be impacted by any coastal plans. For example, massive beach nourishment may protect houses and beaches but it could smother some surf sites.

BH: Can coastal councils save beaches like Narrabeen, Cronulla, Belongil and even Bondi by pumping sand from offshore deposits or bypass set ups?

AS: Yes. We have been advocating this for years, the local councils want it, but the State government has been unresponsive. I feel this attitude will change in the next few years. Massive nourishment will give the beaches an extra few decades of life in a rising sea level scenario. And unlike the Gold Coast where the sand quickly moves on, sand pumped into the headland-bound Sydney beaches will have a long shelf life- decades to centuries. Belongil not so, as it will move on to Brunswick Heads, like on the Gold Coast, and need continual nourishment.

Adelaide Seawall.

Adelaide Seawall.

BH: What about the risks to iconic landmarks like say Bondi, Manly, the Opera House or just general Harbour or Botany Bay foreshores? Eg The airport runways.

AS: As I said above the beaches can get extra time with massive nourishment, but there will come a time when we abandon the beach and build a big seawall or ask the beachfront house to move back (planned retreat). Push is going to come to a tight and expensive squeeze – Sydney’s beaches or beachfront houses. Planned retreat would start buying back these houses now, as has been happening at Narrabeen – but is very expensive and needs federal support. The community needs to be local in what they want- naturally retreating beaches or defended houses. As for the airport, they can just add another layer of rocks and raise it. The Opera House can likewise be defended. They could conceivably place a barrage across Sydney Heads and keep all of Sydney harbours at the same sea level. The Dutch already do this, and London is protected by the Thames barrages. Wouldn’t look too good but it would keep all Sydney foreshore high and dry.

BH: Can you think of some other notable risks – eg Perth metro beaches?

AS: Perth has a predominately sandy but relatively stable shoreline owing to the lower waves. However once sea level started rising it would also need massive nourishment. Adelaide beaches are already in trouble and being nourished, they will need extra nourishment.

Byron Seawall. At high tide cars get wet at times. Further up the beach at Belongil houses are at risk.

Byron Seawall. At high tide cars get wet at times. Further up the beach at Belongil houses are at risk.

BH: How about the surf industry – would it be too alarmist to suggest with the hole in the ozone expanding – could surfing in board shorts with no rashie etc be a thing of the past in a decade or two.  Could it simply be too dangerous from a skin cancer/health risk point of view and could that have huge repercussions in terms of the outdoorsy lifestyle we Australians enjoy, and then ultimately impact on the billion dollar surf clothing manufacturing industry?

AS: There are conflicting reports about the ozone hole. However if it does intensify we at least live in an era when we know if and when its there and have the technology with rashies, hats and sunscreen to combat its effects. We will all just have to become more aware and protected.

BH: Can you envisage indoor wave pools will be popular as a result?

AS: I think these will come anyway, to cater for all the people who cannot handle the real thing. Surf terrifies most people and quickly trashes or drowns anyone not prepared. These people are the majority and will pay for wave pools, leaving the real surf to the hard core.

BH: Can we expect serious water temp rises, more storms, etc?

AS: A gradual rise is already occurring, however like sea level the increase while steady is very small compared to regular changes associated with upwelling and seasonal fluctuations. There is debate on what the impact of higher sea surface temperatures will have on storms, esp. tropical and east coast cyclones. With warmer sea level we would expect to move into conditions that accompany positive Southern Oscillation (SOI, or La Nina), that is more and more intense tropical and east coast cyclones. This means more rains but also big swell out of the north and east – always our best surfing conditions. The big waves however also erode the beaches, so it will be a mixed blessing, with surfers and farmers the winners.

BH: Are the tropics moving south? (SEE ALSO: The Great Southern Reef Is Given A Name & Voice)

AS: Yes, definitely and all the marine critters are moving south also. Just wait for the first crocodile to show up in the Brisbane River

BH: What are your thoughts regarding population displacement from our northern neighbours and the implications?

AS: This will be massive in low-lying areas. Just look what happened in Burma last week (May 2008). A 4 m storm surge and 100,000 people are drowned and many more displaced. In 100 years that same 4m surge will be will be a 5m surge. The same with Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans (a totally predictable event) only the next one will even be higher. A lot of people in low lying delta areas and low Pacific atolls will want to move, many in the Pacific to places like Australia.

BH: Are water shortages, crop degradation and more population pressure on our coastal fringe as inland areas become even less liveable inevitable?

AS: The water shortage is manmade and can be managed. While there is less rain in the south and in winter there is more in the north and in summer, so it will again have a mixed impact on agriculture. Surfers can’t complain about populating the coast; however I would remind all those city surfers that most of the Australian coast is empty, including the surf – so get out there. We have three basic options on the coast Retreat – we just keep stepping back and let sea level rise, this is what will happen on most of the coast, e.g. only 1000 of our 11,000 beaches are ‘developed’, meaning that the 10,000 beaches will be left to defend themselves. Adapt – massive nourishment is a good example that will buy time for our more popular beaches; planning is critical here we can plan our coastal development mindful that sea level will be higher in 100 years, so we don’t place people and structure in the way.

We have a lot of land in Australia and a lot of high ground near the coast, we have the luxury of being able to stay back and stay high when near the coast. In the Maldives they are already building the main city Male higher in preparation for the rise, however not all island countries can afford to do this. Defend – maintain the existing shoreline by building seawalls, barrages, levees, etc. This will occur in all ports, Sydney airport, and whenever there is major infrastructure. However we don’t want to line our beaches with seawalls – buy back, nourishment and planned retreat are what we need here. I remain positive about our response to climate change. We are a relatively wealthy, well-educated environmentally aware nation. We have the foresight, time and money to plan ahead. To make it happen the community needs to keep pressure on all levels of government, and surfers need to ensure that the impact on surfing sites are also considered in any mitigation plans.


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