Forget massive seawalls, coastal wetlands offer the best storm protection money can buy


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Robert Costanza, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National UniversityCoastal communities around the world are facing increasing threats from tropical cyclones. Climate change is causing rising sea levels and bigger, more frequent storms.

Many coastal communities are pondering what to do. Should they build massive seawalls in a bid to protect existing infrastructure? Do they give up on their current coastal locations and retreat inland? Or is there another way?

In the US, the US Army Corps of Engineers has proposed building a 20-foot high giant seawall to protect Miami, the third most populous metropolis on the US east coast. The US$6 billion proposal is tentative and at least five years off, but sure to be among many proposals in the coming years to protect coastal communities from storms.




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But seawalls are expensive to build, require constant maintenance and provide limited protection.

Consider China, which already has a huge number of seawalls built for storm protection. A 2019 study analysed the impact of 127 storms on China between 1989 and 2016.

Coastal wetlands were far more cost effective in preventing storm damages. They also provided many other ecosystem services that seawalls do not.

How wetlands reduce storm effects

Coastal wetlands reduce the damaging effects of tropical cyclones on coastal communities by absorbing storm energy in ways that neither solid land nor open water can.

The mechanisms involved include decreasing the area of open water (fetch) for wind to form waves, increasing drag on water motion and hence the amplitude of a storm surge, reducing direct wind effects on the water surface, and directly absorbing wave energy.

Wetland vegetation contributes by decreasing surges and waves and maintaining shallow water depths that have the same effect. Wetlands also reduce flood damages by absorbing flood waters caused by rain and moderating their effects on built-up areas.

Coastal wetlands can absorb storm energy in ways neither solid land nor open water can.
Coastal wetlands can absorb storm energy in ways neither solid land nor open water can.
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In 2008 I and colleagues estimated coastal wetlands in the US provided storm protection services worth US$23 billion a year.

Our new study estimates the global value of coastal wetlands to storm protection services is US$450 billion a year (calculated at 2015 value) with 4,600 lives saved annually.

To make this calculation, we used the records of more than 1,000 tropical cyclones since 1902 that caused property damage and/or human casualties in 71 countries. Our study took advantage of improved storm tracking, better global land-use mapping and damage-assessment databases, along with improved computational capabilities to model the relationships between coastal wetlands and avoided damages and deaths from tropical cyclones.

The 40 million hectares of coastal wetlands in storm-prone areas provided an average of US$11,000 per hectare a year in avoided storm damages.




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Rising seas allow coastal wetlands to store more carbon


Pacific nations benefit most

The degree to which coastal wetlands provide storm protection varies between countries (and within countries). Key factors are storm probability, amount of built infrastructure in storm-prone areas, if wetlands are in storm-prone areas, and coastal conditions.

The top five countries in terms of annual avoided damages (all in 2015 US dollar values) are the United States (US$200 billion), China (US$157 billion), the Philippines (US$47 billion), Japan (US$24 billion) and Mexico (US$15 billion).

In terms of lives saved annually, the top five are: China (1,309); the Philippines (976); the United States (469)l India (414); and Bangladesh (360).

Floodwaters inundate Manila suburbs in November 2020 following Typhoon Vamco.
Floodwaters inundate Manila suburbs in November 2020 following Typhoon Vamco.
Ace Morandante/Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division/AP

Other ecosystem services

Coastal wetlands also provide other valuable ecosystem services. They provide nursery habitat for many commercially important marine species, recreational opportunities, carbon sequestration, management of sediment and nutrient run-off, and many other valuable services.

In 2014 I and colleagues estimated the value of other ecosystem services provided by wetlands (over and above storm protection) at about $US 135,000 a hectare a year.

But land-use changes, including the loss of coastal wetlands, has been eroding both services. Since 1900 the world has lost up to 70% of its wetlands (Davidson, 2014).

Preserving and restoring coastal wetlands is a very cost-effective strategy for society, and can significantly increase well-being for humans and the rest of nature.

With the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones and other extreme weather events projected to further increase, the value of coastal wetlands will increase in the future. This justifies investing much more in their conservation and restoration.The Conversation

Robert Costanza, Professor and VC’s Chair, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You may have heard the ‘moon wobble’ will intensify coastal floods. Well, here’s what that means for Australia


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Mark Gibbs, Australian Institute of Marine ScienceExtreme floods this month have been crippling cities worldwide. This week in China’s Henan province, a year’s worth of rain fell in just three days. Last week, catastrophic floods swept across western Germany and parts of Belgium. And at home, rain fell in Perth for 17 days straight, making it the city’s wettest July in 20 years.

But torrential rain isn’t the only cause of floods. Many coastal towns and cities in Australia would already be familiar with what are known as “nuisance” floods, which occur during some high tides.

A recent study from NASA and the University of Hawaii suggests even nuisance floods are set to get worse in the mid-2030s as the moon’s orbit begins another phase, combined with rising sea levels from climate change.

The study was conducted in the US. But what do its findings mean for the vast lengths of coastlines in Australia and the people who live there?

A triple whammy

We know average sea levels are rising from climate change, and we know small rises in average sea levels amplify flooding during storms. From the perspective of coastal communities, it’s not if a major flood will occur, it’s when the next one will arrive, and the next one after that.

But we know from historical and paleontological records of flooding events that in many, if not most, cases the coastal flooding we’ve directly experienced in our lifetimes are simply the entrée in terms of what will occur in future.

Flooding is especially severe when a storm coincides with a high tide. And this is where NASA and the University of Hawaii’s new research identified a further threat.

Researchers looked at the amplification phase of the natural 18.6-year cycle of the “wobble” in the moon’s orbit, first identified in 1728.

The orbit of the moon around the sun is not quite on a flat plane (planar); the actual orbit oscillates up and down a bit. Think of a spinning plate on a stick — the plate spins, but also wobbles up and down.




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When the moon is at particular parts of its wobbling orbit, it pulls on the water in the oceans a bit more. This means for some years during the 18.6-year cycle, some high tides are higher than they would have otherwise been.

This results in increases to daily tidal rises, and this, in turn, will exacerbate coastal flooding, whether it be nuisance flooding in vulnerable areas, or magnified flooding during a storm.

View of Earth from the Moon
The moon’s orbit isn’t on a flat plane. It oscillates up and down, like a plate would when it spins on a stick.
Shutterstock

A major wobble amplification phase will occur in the mid-2030s, when climate change will make the problem become severe in some cases.

The triple whammy of the wobble in the moon’s orbit, ongoing upwards creep in sea levels from ocean warming, and more intense storms associated with climate change, will bring the impacts of sea-level rise earlier than previously expected — in many locations around the world. This includes in Australia.

So what will happen in Australia?

The locations in Australia where tides have the largest range, and will be most impacted by the wobble, aren’t close to the major population centres. Australia’s largest tides are close to Broad Sound, near Hay Point in central Queensland, and Derby in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

However, many Australian cities host suburbs that routinely flood during larger high tides. Near my home in Meanjin (Brisbane), the ocean regularly backs up through the storm water drainage system during large high tides. At times, even getting from the front door to the street can be challenging.

Derby, WA, has one of the biggest tidal ranges in Australia.
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Some bayside suburbs in Melbourne are also already exposed to nuisance flooding. But a number of others that are not presently exposed may also become more vulnerable from the combined influence of the moon wobble and climate change — even when the weather is calm. High tide during this lunar phase, occurring during a major rainfall event, will result in even greater risk.




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High-tide flood risk is accelerating, putting coastal economies at risk


In high-income nations like Australia, sea-level rise means increasing unaffordability of insurance for coastal homes, followed by an inability to seek insurance cover at all and, ultimately, reductions in asset values for those unable or unwilling to adapt.

The prognosis for lower-income coastal communities that aren’t able to adapt to sea-level rise is clear: increasingly frequent and intense flooding will make many aspects of daily life difficult to sustain. In particular, movement around the community will be challenging, homes will often be inundated, unhealthy and untenable, and the provision of basic services problematic.

What do we do about it?

While our hearts and minds continue to be occupied by the pandemic, threats from climate change to our ongoing standard of living, or even future viability on this planet, haven’t slowed. We can pretend to ignore what is happening and what is increasingly unstoppable, or we can proactively manage the increasing threat.

Some coastal communities, such as in Melbourne’s bayside suburbs, may experience flooding, even if they never have before.
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Thankfully, approaches to adapting the built and natural environment to sea-level rise are increasingly being applied around the world. Many major cities have already embarked on major coastal adaptation programs – think London, New York, Rotterdam, and our own Gold Coast.

However, the uptake continues to lag behind the threat. And one of the big challenges is to incentivise coastal adaptation without overly impacting private property rights.




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Perhaps the best approach to learning to live with water is led by the Netherlands. Rather than relocating entire communities or constructing large barriers like sea walls, this nation is finding ways to reduce the overall impact of flooding. This includes more resilient building design or reducing urban development in specific flood retention basins. This means flooding can occur without damaging infrastructure.

There are lessons here. Australia’s adaptation discussions have often focused on finding the least worst choice between constructing large seawalls or moving entire communities — neither of which are often palatable. This leads to inaction, as both options aren’t often politically acceptable.

The seas are inexorably creeping higher and higher. Once thought to be a problem for our grandchildren, it is becoming increasingly evident this is a challenge for the here and now. The recently released research confirms this conclusion.




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The Conversation


Mark Gibbs, Principal Engineer: Reef Restoration, Australian Institute of Marine Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Managed retreat of settlements remains a tough call even as homes flood and coasts erode


Tayanah O’Donnell, Australian National UniversityIt is no joke that New South Wales residents are in the midst of their fourth “one in 100 year” event since January 2020. Much of the Australian east coast continues to experience heavy rainfall, strong winds and abnormally high tides. All will make the current floods worse.

As climate tipping points are reached and the Earth’s systems begin to buckle under the strain, the need for considered adaptation strategies is overwhelmingly clear. One of these strategies is for human settlements to retreat from areas most at risk, whether from floods or bushfires. While something needs to be done to ensure future generations do not suffer catastrophic consequences, managed retreat is a complex tool.

These strategic decisions in the next five to ten years will be challenging. And these decisions really matter: where and how do we build residential areas that can cope with a climate-changed world?




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What is managed retreat?

Managed retreat can be defined as “purposeful, co-ordinated movement of people and assets out of harm’s way”. Managed retreat more often refers to the retreat of existing development out of harm’s way. Planned retreat is usually the preferred phrasing for new development that is planned for possible future relocation.

Both planned and managed retreat are focused on the permanent relocation of people and assets, as opposed to the evacuations we are seeing now.

Managed retreat is experiencing a resurgence in scientific literature as the impacts of climate change become increasingly frequent, severe and more obvious. These impacts bring with them a recognition of the need for adaptation even as we urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, relocating away from high-risk locations is not an entirely new concept. However, managed retreat in response to a changing climate is not only complex, but also has a lot of political baggage. The complexity spans legal, financial, cultural and logistical factors among others: the political baggage seemingly associated with effective climate action in Australia often hinders governments’ abilities to respond properly.

Societies around the world need to grapple with the reality that managed retreat will become a suite of tools to respond to crisis. Insurers will not always be available, and the costs to governments (and therefore to you, the taxpayer) of responding to increasing rates of disasters, irrespective of insurance, will continue to grow exponentially.




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Responding to events after the fact is an unsustainable model of adaptation. There is, too, a need to acknowledge settlement needs and historical built environment legacies that have put significant state infrastructure in harm’s way.

Managing difficult trade-offs

We know trade-offs need to be made between what we protect and what we let go in suburban floodplain areas.

Legal machanisms to force people and assets to move can and must be thoughtful. The implementation of managed retreat in urbanised areas faces multiple hurdles. These include:




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It is wrong to see managed retreat as the panacea for climate risk and development in vulnerable locations. In many cases, once development is in place, it can be more appealing to some to protect an at-risk area rather than work towards managed retreat. Even where managed retreat has been successful, as in the case of the flood-prone township of Grantham, it was not without pain.

There are also other, more basic needs, such as having land available where people can relocate.

Working out highest and best use of land

There are ways that land can be used for its highest and best use at a point in time. For example, tools like easements can enable vulnerable land to be used, subject to event-based or time-based trigger-point thresholds. Once these thresholds are reached, the land is put to some other use. The advantage of these machanisms, especially for new development, is that owners are clear about the risks from the start.

This still leaves us with hard decisions about responding to at-risk current developments. Putting off these hard decisions and leaving them for future decision-makers will result in a huge injustice, because there will be catastrophe as Earth’s tipping points are passed. Development decisions made now will determine the impacts on our children and grandchildren.

Urban development decisions for both new and existing development in this coming decade demand courage and leadership. If we accept that Australian cities will continue to expand and increase in density, then we have some serious questions to ask ourselves. What kind of future do we want?

Some areas should simply not be developed.




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There is a risk that an over-reliance on managed retreat will over-simplify the challenge of working out what to do about development in at-risk locations. There is a clear need to separate out what to do about current and past developments, and how to approach new developments.

The latter is easy – do not rebuild residential homes in at-risk areas. Governments should repurpose these zones for uses that permit nature-based solutions to the need to adapt to climate change.

Current development is much more complex. In some cases, managed retreat – done thoughtfully and considerately – will be the only option.The Conversation

Tayanah O’Donnell, Honorary Senior Lecturer, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

One of Australia’s most famous beaches is disappearing, and storms aren’t to blame. So what’s the problem?



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Thomas Murray, Griffith University; Ana Paula da Silva, Griffith University; Darrell Strauss, Griffith University; Guilherme Vieira da Silva, Griffith University, and Rodger Tomlinson, Griffith University

Storms or tropical cyclones usually get the blame when Australia’s beaches suffer severe erosion. But on the New South Wales north coast at Byron Bay, another force is at play.

Over the past six months, tourists and locals have been shocked to see Byron’s famous Main Beach literally disappearing, inundated with water and debris. In October, lifesavers were forced to temporarily close the beach because they couldn’t get rescue equipment onto the sand. Resident Neil Holland, who has lived in the area for 47 years, told the ABC:

It’s the first time I’ve seen it this bad in all the time that I’ve been here, and it hasn’t stopped yet. The sand is just being taken away by the metre.

So what’s happening? To find the answer, we combined a brief analysis of satellite imagery with previous knowledge about the process behind the erosion and how it has been occurring at Byron Bay. The erosion is due to a process known as “headland bypassing”, and it is quite different to erosion from storms.

What is headland bypassing?

Headland bypassing occurs when sand moves from one beach to another around a solid obstruction, such as a rocky headland or cape. This process is mainly driven by wave energy. Along the coast of southeast Australia, waves generate currents that move sand mostly northward along the northern NSW coastline, and on towards Queensland.

However, sand does not flow evenly or smoothly along the coast: when sand arrives at a beach just before a rocky headland, it builds up against the rocks and the beach grows wider. When there is too much sand for the headland to hold, or there’s a change in wave conditions, some sand will be pushed around the headland – bypassing it – before continuing its journey up the coast.




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This large lump of moving sand is called a “sand pulse” or “sand slug”. The sand pulse needs the right wave conditions to move towards the shore. Without these conditions, the beach in front of the pulse is deprived of sand and the waves and currents near the shore erode the beach.

Headland bypassing was first described in the 1940s. However, only about 20 years ago was it recognised as an important part of the process controlling sand moving along the coast. Since then, with better technology and more data, researchers have studied the process in more detail, and helped to shed light on how headland bypassing might affect long-term coastal planning.

Recent studies have shown wave direction is particularly important to headland bypassing. Importantly, weather patterns that produce waves are affected by climate drivers including the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation. So, future changes in the way these drivers behave will affect the waves and currents that move sand along our coast, which in turn affects headland bypassing and beach erosion.

Man sitting near eroded beach
Byron Bay’s beaches have badly eroded in recent months.
Byron Shire Council

What’s happening at Byron Bay?

In October and November this year, a large amount of sand was present just north of Cape Byron, from Wategos Beach to The Pass Beach. As this sand pulse grew, Clarkes Beach, and then Main Beach, were starved of their usual sand supply and began to erode.

The sand pulse is visible on satellite images from around April 2020. Each month, it slowly moves westward into the bay. As the sand pulse grows, the beach ahead of the pulse gradually erodes. At present Main Beach is at the eroding stage.




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Similar erosion was observed at Main Beach in the early 1990s. The beach became wider again from 1995 to 2007. From 2009 onwards, the shoreline erosion slowly began again, and became very noticeable in the past six months.

The effect of sand pulses on beach erosion is not exclusive to Byron Bay. It has been described previously in other locations, such as NSW’s Kingscliff Beach in 2011. In that case, the erosion risked damaging a nearby holiday park and bowling club.

Satellite images showing sand movement around Cape Byron
Satellite images showing sand movement around Cape Byron.
Author provided

When will this end?

Mild waves from the east to northeast, which usually occur from October to April each year, will help some of the sand pulse move onto Clarkes Beach and then further along to Main Beach. This normally happens over several months to a year. But it’s hard to say exactly when the beach will be fully restored.

This uncertainty underscores the need to better forecast these processes. This would help us to predict when bypassing sand pulses will occur and to manage beach erosion.

Climate change is expected to affect wave conditions, although the exact impact on the headland bypassing process remains unclear. However, better predictions would allow the community to be informed early about expected impacts, and officials could better manage and plan for future erosion.

Meanwhile, Byron Bay waits and watches – knowing at least that the erosion problem will eventually improve.The Conversation

People walking along Main Beach
The sand at Main Beach at Byron Bay, pictured here under good conditions, will eventually return.
AAP

Thomas Murray, Research Fellow (Coastal Management), Griffith University; Ana Paula da Silva, PhD Candidate, Griffith University; Darrell Strauss, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University; Guilherme Vieira da Silva, Research Fellow, Griffith University, and Rodger Tomlinson, Director – Griffith Centre for Coastal Management, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Unwelcome sea change: new research finds coastal flooding may cost up to 20% of global economy by 2100



Darren Pateman/AAP

Ebru Kirezci, University of Melbourne and Ian Young, University of Melbourne

Over the past two weeks, storms pummelling the New South Wales coast have left beachfront homes at Wamberal on the verge of collapse. It’s stark proof of the risks climate change and sea level rise pose to coastal areas.

Our new research published today puts a potential price on the future destruction. Coastal land affected by flooding – including high tides and extreme seas – could increase by 48% by 2100. Exposed human population and assets are also estimated to increase by about half in that time.

Under a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions and no flood defences, the cost of asset damage could equate up to 20% of the global economy in 2100.

Without a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, or a huge investment in sea walls and other structures, it’s clear coastal erosion will devastate the global economy and much of the world’s population.

In Australia, we predict the areas to be worst-affected by flooding are concentrated in the north and northeast of the continent, including around Darwin and Townsville.

Man cleans up after Townsville flood
A clean-up after flooding last year in Townsville, an Australian city highly exposed to future sea level rise.
Dan Peled/AAP

Our exposed coasts

Sea levels are rising at an increasing rate for two main reasons. As global temperatures increase, glaciers and ice sheets melt. At the same time, the oceans absorb heat from the atmosphere, causing the water to expand. Seas are rising by about 3-4 millimetres a year and the rate is expected to accelerate.

These higher sea levels, combined with potentially more extreme weather under climate change, will bring damaging flooding to coasts. Our study set out to determine the extent of flooding, how many people this would affect and the economic damage caused.




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We combined data on global sea levels during extreme storms with projections of sea level rises under moderate and high-end greenhouse gas emission scenarios. We used the data to model extreme sea levels that may occur by 2100.

We combined this model with topographic data (showing the shape and features of the land surface) to identify areas at risk of coastal flooding. We then estimated the population and assets at risk from flooding, using data on global population distribution and gross domestic product in affected areas.

Homes at Collaroy in Sydney damaged by storm surge
Many coastal homes, such as these at Sydney’s Collaroy beach, are exposed to storm surge damage.
David Moir/AAP

Alarming findings

So what did we find? One outstanding result is that due to sea level rise, what is now considered a once-a-century extreme sea level event could occur as frequently as every ten years or less for most coastal locations.

Under a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions and assuming no flood defences, such as sea walls, we estimate that the land area affected by coastal flooding could increase by 48% by 2100.




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This could mean by 2100, the global population exposed to coastal flooding could be up to 287 million (4.1% of the world’s population).

Under the same scenario, coastal assets such as buildings, roads and other infrastructure worth up to US$14.2 trillion (A$19.82 trillion) could be threatened by flooding.

This equates to 20% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2100. However this worst-case scenario assumes no flood defences are in place globally. This is unlikely, as sea walls and other structures have already been built in some coastal locations.

In Australia, areas where coastal flooding might be extensive include the Northern Territory, and the northern coasts of Queensland and Western Australia.

Elsewhere, extensive coastal flooding is also projected in:
– southeast China
– Bangladesh, and India’s states of West Bengal and Gujurat
– US states of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland
– northwest Europe including the UK, northern France and northern Germany.

A woman struggles through floodwaters in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is among the nations most exposed to coastal flooding this century.
SOPA

Keeping the sea at bay

Our large-scale global analysis has some limitations, and our results at specific locations might differ from local findings. But we believe our analysis provides a basis for more detailed investigations of climate change impacts at the most vulnerable coastal locations.

It’s clear the world must ramp up measures to adapt to coastal flooding and offset associated social and economic impacts.

This adaptation will include building and enhancing coastal protection structures such as dykes or sea walls. It will also include coastal retreat – allowing low-lying coastal areas to flood, and moving human development inland to safer ground. It will also require deploying coastal warning systems and increasing flooding preparedness of coastal communities. This will require careful long-term planning.

All this might seem challenging – and it is. But done correctly, coastal adaptation can protect hundreds of millions of people and save the global economy billions of dollars this century.




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The Conversation


Ebru Kirezci, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne and Ian Young, Kernot Professor of Engineering, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The world may lose half its sandy beaches by 2100. It’s not too late to save most of them



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John Church, UNSW

For many coastal regions, sea-level rise is a looming crisis threatening our coastal society, livelihoods and coastal ecosystems. A new study, published in Nature Climate Change, has reported the world will lose almost half of its valuable sandy beaches by 2100 as the ocean moves landward with rising sea levels.

Sandy beaches comprise about a third of the world’s coastline. And Australia, with nearly 12,000 kilometres at risk, could be hit hard.




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This is the first truly global study to attempt to quantify beach erosion. The results for the highest greenhouse gas emission scenario are alarming, but reducing emissions leads to lower rates of coastal erosion.

Our best hope for the future of the world’s coastlines and for Australia’s iconic beaches is to keep global warming as low as possible by urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Losing sand in coastal erosion

Two of the largest problems resulting from rising sea levels are coastal erosion and an already-observed increase in the frequency of coastal flooding events.

Erosion during storms can have dramatic consequences, particularly for coastal infrastructure. We saw this in 2016, when wild storms removed sand from beaches and damaged houses in Sydney.

After storms like this, beaches often gradually recover, because sand from deeper waters washes back to the shore over months to years, and in some cases, decades. These dramatic storms and the long-term sand supply make it difficult to identify any beach movement in the recent past from sea-level rise.

What we do know is that the rate of sea-level rise has accelerated. It has increased by half since 1993, and is continuing to accelerate from ongoing greenhouse gas emissions.

If we continue to emit high levels of greenhouse gases, this acceleration will continue through the 21st century and beyond. As a result, the supply of sand may not keep pace with rapidly rising sea levels.

Projections for the worst-case scenario

In the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released last year, the highest greenhouse gas emissions scenario resulted in global warming of more than 4°C (relative to pre-industrial temperatures) and a likely range of sea-level rise between 0.6 and 1.1 metres by 2100.

For this scenario, this new study projects a global average landward movement of the coastline in the range of 40 to 250 metres if there were no physical limits to shoreline movement, such as those imposed by sea walls or other coastal infrastructure.




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Sea-level rise is responsible for the vast majority of this beach loss, with faster loss during the latter decades of the 21st century when the rate of rise is larger. And sea levels will continue to rise for centuries, so beach erosion would continue well after 2100.

For southern Australia, the landward movement of the shoreline is projected to be more than 100 metres. This would damage many of Australia’s iconic tourist beaches such as Bondi, Manly and the Gold Coast. The movement in northern Australia is projected to be even larger, but more uncertain because of ongoing historical shoreline trends.

What happens if we mitigate our emissions

The above results are from a worst-case scenario. If greenhouse gas emissions were reduced such that the 2100 global temperature rose by about 2.5°C, instead of more than 4°C, then we’d reduce beach erosion by about a third of what’s projected in this worst-case scenario.

Current global policies would result in about 3°C of global warming.
That’s between the 4°C and the 2.5°C scenarios considered in this beach erosion study, implying our current policies will lead to significant beach erosion, including in Australia.

Mitigating our emissions even further, to achieve the Paris goal of keeping temperature rise to well below 2°C, would be a major step in reducing beach loss.

Why coastal erosion is hard to predict

Projecting sea-level rise and resulting beach erosion are particularly difficult, as both depend on many factors.

For sea level, the major problems are estimating the contribution of melting Antarctic ice flowing into the ocean, how sea level will change on a regional scale, and the amount of global warming.

The beach erosion calculated in this new study depends on several new databases. The databases of recent shoreline movement used to project ongoing natural factors might already be influenced by rising sea levels, possibly leading to an overestimate in the final calculations.




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The implications

Regardless of the exact numbers reported in this study, it’s clear we will have to adapt to the beach erosion we can no longer prevent, if we are to continue enjoying our beaches.

This means we need appropriate planning, such as beach nourishment (adding sand to beaches to combat erosion) and other soft and hard engineering solutions. In some cases, we’ll even need to retreat from the coast to allow the beach to migrate landward.

And if we are to continue to enjoy our sandy beaches into the future, we cannot allow ongoing and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The world needs urgent, significant and sustained global mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.The Conversation

John Church, Chair Professor, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: why coastal floods are becoming more frequent as seas rise



As sea levels rise, it becomes easier for ocean waves to spill further onto land.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

James Renwick, Victoria University of Wellington


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I saw an article claiming that “king tides” will increase in frequency as sea level rises. I am sceptical. What is the physics behind such a claim and how is it related to climate change? My understanding is that a king tide is a purely tidal effect, related to Moon, Sun and Earth axis tilt, and is quite different from a storm surge.

This is a good question, and you are right about the tides themselves. The twice-daily tides are caused by the gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun, and the rotation of the Earth, none of which is changing.

A “king” tide occurs around the time when the Moon is at its closest to the Earth and Earth is at its closest to the Sun, and the combined gravitational effects are strongest. They are the highest of the high tides we experience.

But the article you refer to was not really talking about king tides. It was discussing coastal inundation events.




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King tides and rising seas are predictable, and we’re not doing enough about it


When tides, storms and sea levels combine

During a king tide, houses and roads close to the coast can be flooded. The article referred to the effects of coastal flooding generally, using “king tide” as a shorthand expression. We know that king tides are not increasing in frequency, but we also know that coastal flooding and coastal erosion events are happening more frequently.

As sea levels rise, it becomes easier for ocean waves to penetrate on to the shore. The biggest problem arises when storms combine with a high tide, and ride on top of higher sea levels.

The low air pressure near the centre of a storm pulls up the sea surface below. Then, onshore winds can pile water up against the coast, allowing waves to run further inshore. Add a high or king tide and the waves can come yet further inshore. Add a bit of sea level rise and the waves penetrate even further.

The background sea level rise has been only 20cm around New Zealand’s coasts so far, but even that makes a noticeable difference. An apparently small rise in overall sea level allows waves generated by a storm to come on shore much more easily. Coastal engineers use the rule of thumb that every 10cm of sea level rise increases the frequency of a given coastal flood by a factor of three.

This means that 10cm of sea level rise will turn a one-in-100-year coastal flood into a one-in-33-year event. With another 10cm of sea level rise, it becomes a one-in-11-year event, and so on.

Retreating from the coast

The occurrence rates change so quickly because in most places, beaches are fairly flat. A 10cm rise in sea levels might translate to 30 or 40 metres of inland movement of the high tide line, depending on the slope of the beach. So when the tide is high and the waves are rolling in, the sea can come inland tens of metres further than it used to, unless something like a coastal cliff or a sea wall blocks its way.

The worry is that beaches are likely to remain fairly flat, so anything within 40 metres of the current high tide mark is likely to be eroded away as storms occur and we experience another 10cm of sea level rise. If a road or a house is on an erodible coast (such as a line of sand dunes), it is not the height above sea level that matters but the distance from the high tide mark.

Another 30cm of sea level rise is already “baked in”, guaranteed over the next 40 years, regardless of what happens with greenhouse gas emissions and action on climate change. By the end of the century, at least another 20cm on top of that is virtually certain.




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The 30cm rise multiplies the chances of coastal flooding by a factor of around 27 (3x3x3) and 50cm by the end of the century increases coastal flooding frequency by a factor of around 250. That would make the one-in-100-year coastal flood likely every few months, and roads, properties and all kinds of built infrastructure within 200 metres of the current coastline would be vulnerable to inundation and damage.

These are round numbers, and local changes depend on coastal shape and composition, but they give the sense of how quickly things can change. Already, key roads in Auckland (such as Tamaki Drive) are inundated when storms combine with high tides. Such events are set to become much more common as sea levels continue to rise, to the point where they will become part of the background state of the coastal zone.

To ensure cities such as Auckland (and others around the world) are resilient to such challenges, we’ll need to retreat from the coast where possible (move dwellings and roads inland) and to build coastal defences where that makes sense. The coast is coming inland, and we need to move with it.The Conversation

James Renwick, Professor, Physical Geography (climate science), Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change may change the way ocean waves impact 50% of the world’s coastlines


Mark Hemer, CSIRO; Ian Young, University of Melbourne; Joao Morim Nascimento, Griffith University, and Nobuhito Mori, Kyoto University

The rise in sea levels is not the only way climate change will affect the coasts. Our research, published today in Nature Climate Change, found a warming planet will also alter ocean waves along more than 50% of the world’s coastlines.

If the climate warms by more than 2℃ beyond pre-industrial levels, southern Australia is likely to see longer, more southerly waves that could alter the stability of the coastline.

Scientists look at the way waves have shaped our coasts – forming beaches, spits, lagoons and sea caves – to work out how the coast looked in the past. This is our guide to understanding past sea levels.




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But often this research assumes that while sea levels might change, wave conditions have stayed the same. This same assumption is used when considering how climate change will influence future coastlines – future sea-level rise is considered, but the effect of future change on waves, which shape the coastline, is overlooked.

Changing waves

Waves are generated by surface winds. Our changing climate will drive changes in wind patterns around the globe (and in turn alter rain patterns, for example by changing El Niño and La Niña patterns). Similarly, these changes in winds will alter global ocean wave conditions.




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Further to these “weather-driven” changes in waves, sea level rise can change how waves travel from deep to shallow water, as can other changes in coastal depths, such as affected reef systems.

Recent research analysed 33 years of wind and wave records from satellite measurements, and found average wind speeds have risen by 1.5 metres per second, and wave heights are up by 30cm – an 8% and 5% increase, respectively, over this relatively short historical record.

These changes were most pronounced in the Southern Ocean, which is important as waves generated in the Southern Ocean travel into all ocean basins as long swells, as far north as the latitude of San Francisco.

Sea level rise is only half the story

Given these historical changes in ocean wave conditions, we were interested in how projected future changes in atmospheric circulation, in a warmer climate, would alter wave conditions around the world.

As part of the Coordinated Ocean Wave Climate Project, ten research organisations combined to look at a range of different global wave models in a variety of future climate scenarios, to determine how waves might change in the future.

While we identified some differences between different studies, we found if the 2℃ Paris agreement target is kept, changes in wave patterns are likely to stay inside natural climate variability.

However in a business-as-usual climate, where warming continues in line with current trends, the models agreed we’re likely to see significant changes in wave conditions along 50% of the world’s coasts. These changes varied by region.

Less than 5% of the global coastline is at risk of seeing increasing wave heights. These include the southern coasts of Australia, and segments of the Pacific coast of South and Central America.

On the other hand decreases in wave heights, forecast for about 15% of the world’s coasts, can also alter coastal systems.

But describing waves by height only is the equivalent of describing an orchestra simply by the volume at which it plays.

Some areas will see the height of waves remain the same, but their length or frequency change. This can result in more force exerted on the coast (or coastal infrastructure), perhaps seeing waves run further up a beach and increasing wave-driven flooding.

Similarly, waves travelling from a slightly altered direction (suggested to occur over 20% of global coasts) can change how much sand they shunt along the coast – important considerations for how the coast might respond. Infrastructure built on the coast, or offshore, is sensitive to these many characteristics of waves.

While each of these wave characteristics is important on its own, our research identified that about 40% of the world’s coastlines are likely to see changes in wave height, period and direction happening simultaneously.

While some readers may see intense waves offering some benefit to their next surf holiday, there are much greater implications for our coastal and offshore environments. Flooding from rising sea levels could cost US$14 trillion worldwide annually by 2100 if we miss the target of 2℃ warming.




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How coastlines respond to future climate change will be a response to a complex interplay of many processes, many of which respond to variable and changing climate. To focus on sea level rise alone, and overlooking the role waves play in shaping our coasts, is a simplification which has great potential to be costly.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Xiaolan Wang, Senior Research Scientist at Environment and Climate Change, Canada, to this article.The Conversation

Mark Hemer, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Ian Young, Kernot Professor of Engineering, University of Melbourne; Joao Morim Nascimento, PhD Candidate, Griffith University, and Nobuhito Mori, Professor, Kyoto University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Daylight robbery: how human-built structures leave coastal ecosystems in the shadows



Human-built structures are home to a wide variety of creatures.

Martino Malerba, Monash University; Craig White, Monash University; Dustin Marshall, Monash University, and Liz Morris, Monash University

About half of the coastline of Europe, the United States and Australasia is modified by artificial structures. In newly published research, we identified a new effect of marine urbanisation that has so far gone unrecognised.

When we build marinas, ports, jetties and coastal defences, we introduce hard structures that weren’t there before and which reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the water. This means energy producers such as seaweed and algae, which use light energy to transform carbon dioxide into sugars, are replaced by energy consumers such as filter-feeding invertebrates. These latter species are often not native to the area, and can profoundly alter marine habitats by displacing local species, reducing biodiversity, and decreasing the overall productivity of ecosystems.

Incorporating simple designs in our marine infrastructure to allow more light penetration, improve water flow, and maintain water quality, will go a long way towards curbing these negative consequences.

Pier life

We are used to thinking about the effects of urbanisation in our cities – but it is time to pay more attention to urban sprawl in the sea. We need to better understand the effects on the food web in a local context.




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Most animals that establish themselves on these shaded hard structures are “sessile” invertebrates, which can’t move around. They come in a variety of forms, from encrusting species such as barnacles, to tree-shaped or vase-like forms such as bryozoans or sponges. But what they all have in common is that they can filter out algae from the water.

In Australian waters, we commonly see animals from a range of different groups including sea squirts, sponges, bryozoans, mussels and worms. They can grow in dense communities and often reproduce and grow quickly in new environments.

The sheltered and shaded nature of marine urbanisation disproportionately favours the development of dense invertebrate communities, as shown here in Port Phillip Bay.

How much energy do they use?

In our new research, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, we analysed the total energy usage of invertebrate communities on artificial structures in two Australian bays: Moreton Bay, Queensland, and Port Phillip Bay, Victoria. We did so by combining data from field surveys, laboratory studies, and satellite data.

We also compiled data from other studies and assessed how much algae is required to support the energy demands of the filter-feeding species in commercial ports worldwide.

In Port Phillip Bay, 0.003% of the total area is taken up by artificial structures. While this doesn’t sound like much, it is equivalent to almost 50 soccer fields of human-built structures.

We found that the invertebrate community living on a single square metre of artificial structure consumes the algal biomass produced by 16 square metres of ocean. Hence, the total invertebrate community living on these structures in the bay consumes the algal biomass produced by 800 football pitches of ocean!

Similarly, Moreton Bay has 0.005% of its total area occupied by artificial structures, but each square metre of artificial structure requires around 5 square metres of algal production – a total of 115 football pitches. Our models account for various biological and physical variables such as temperature, light, and species composition, all of which contribute to generate differences among regions.

Overall, the invertebrates growing on artificial structures in these two Australian bays weigh as much as 3,200 three-tonne African elephants. This biomass would not exist were it not for marine urbanisation.

Colonies of mussels and polychaetes near Melbourne.

How does Australia compare to the rest of the world?

We found stark differences among ports in different parts of the world. For example, one square metre of artificial structure in cold, highly productive regions (such as St Petersburg, Russia) can require as little as 0.9 square metres of sea surface area to provide enough algal food to sustain the invertebrate populations. Cold regions can require less area because they are often richer in nutrients and better mixed than warmer waters.

In contrast, a square metre of structure in the nutrient-poor tropical waters of Hawaii can deplete all the algae produced in the surrounding 120 square metres.

All major commercial ports worldwide with associated area of the underwater artificial structures (size of grey dots) and trophic footprint (size of red borders). Trophic footprints indicate how much ocean surface is required to supply the energy demand of the sessile invertebrate community growing on all artificial structures of the port, averaged over the year. This depends on local conditions of ocean primary productivity and temperature. Ports located in cold, nutrient-rich waters (dark blue) have a lower footprint than ports in warmer waters (light blue).

Does it matter?

Should we be worried about all of this? To some extent, it depends on context.

These dense filter-feeding communities are removing algae that normally enters food webs and supports coastal fisheries. As human populations in coastal areas continue to increase, so will demand on these fisheries, which are already under pressure from climate change. These effects will be greatest in warmer, nutrient-poor waters.

But there is a flip side. Ports and urban coastlines are often polluted with increased nutrient inputs, such as sewage effluents or agricultural fertilisers. The dense populations of filter-feeders on the structures near these areas may help prevent this nutrient runoff from triggering problematic algal blooms, which can cause fish kills and impact human health. But we still need to know what types of algae these filter-feeding communities are predominantly consuming.




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Our analysis provides an important first step in understanding how these communities might affect coastal production and food webs.

In places like Southeast Asia, marine managers should consider how artificial structures might affect essential coastal fisheries. Meanwhile, in places like Port Phillip Bay, we need to know whether and how these communities might affect the chances of harmful algal blooms.The Conversation

Mussels in the port of Hobart.

Martino Malerba, Postdoctoral Fellow, Monash University; Craig White, Head, Evolutionary Physiology Research Group, Monash University; Dustin Marshall, Professor, Marine Evolutionary Ecology, Monash University, and Liz Morris, Administration Manager, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Rising seas allow coastal wetlands to store more carbon



File 20190306 48417 1mvzgzg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Carbon storage in Australian mangroves can help mitigate climate change.
Shutterstock

Kerrylee Rogers, University of Wollongong; Jeffrey Kelleway, Macquarie University, and Neil Saintilan, Macquarie University

Coastal wetlands don’t cover much global area but they punch well above their carbon weight by sequestering the most atmospheric carbon dioxide of all natural ecosystems.

Termed “blue carbon ecosystems” by virtue of their connection to the sea, the salty, oxygen-depleted soils in which wetlands grow are ideal for burying and storing organic carbon.

In our research, published today in Nature, we found that carbon storage by coastal wetlands is linked to sea-level rise. Our findings suggest as sea levels rise, these wetlands can help mitigate climate change.

Sea-level rise benefits coastal wetlands

We looked at how changing sea levels over the past few millennia has affected coastal wetlands (mostly mangroves and saltmarshes). We found they adapt to rising sea levels by increasing the height of their soil layers, capturing mineral sediment and accumulating dense root material. Much of this is carbon-rich material, which means rising sea levels prompt the wetlands to store even more carbon.

We investigated how saltmarshes have responded to variations in “relative sea level” over the past few millennia. (Relative sea level is the position of the water’s edge in relation to the land rather than the total volume of water within the ocean, which is called the eustatic sea level.)




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What does past sea-level rise tell us?

Global variation in the rate of sea-level rise over the past 6,000 years is largely related to the proximity of coastlines to ice sheets that extended over high northern latitudes during the last glacial period, some 26,000 years ago.

As ice sheets melted, northern continents slowly adjusted elevation in relation to the ocean due to flexure of the Earth’s mantle.

Karaaf Wetlands in Victoria, Australia.
Boobook48/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

For much of North America and Europe, this has resulted in a gradual rise in relative sea level over the past few thousand years. By contrast, the southern continents of Australia, South America and Africa were less affected by glacial ice sheets, and sea-level history on these coastlines more closely reflects ocean surface “eustatic” trends, which stabilised over this period.

Our analysis of carbon stored in more than 300 saltmarshes across six continents showed that coastlines subject to consistent relative sea-level rise over the past 6,000 years had, on average, two to four times more carbon in the upper 20cm of sediment, and five to nine times more carbon in the lower 50-100cm of sediment, compared with saltmarshes on coastlines where sea level was more stable over the same period.

In other words, on coastlines where sea level is rising, organic carbon is more efficiently buried as the wetland grows and carbon is stored safely below the surface.

Give wetlands more space

We propose that the difference in saltmarsh carbon storage in wetlands of the southern hemisphere and the North Atlantic is related to “accommodation space”: the space available for a wetland to store mineral and organic sediments.

Coastal wetlands live within the upper portion of the intertidal zone, roughly between mean sea level and the upper limit of high tide.

These tidal boundaries define where coastal wetlands can store mineral and organic material. As mineral and organic material accumulates within this zone it creates layers, raising the ground of the wetlands.

The coastal wetlands of Broome, Western Australia.
Shutterstock

New accommodation space for storage of carbon is therefore created when the sea is rising, as has happened on many shorelines of the North Atlantic Ocean over the past 6,000 years.

To confirm this theory we analysed changes in carbon storage within a unique wetland that has experienced rapid relative sea-level rise over the past 30 years.




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When underground mine supports were removed from a coal mine under Lake Macquarie in southeastern Australia in the 1980s, the shoreline subsided a metre in a matter of months, causing a relative rise in sea level.

Following this the rate of mineral accumulation doubled, and the rate of organic accumulation increased fourfold, with much of the organic material being carbon. The result suggests that sea-level rise over the coming decades might transform our relatively low-carbon southern hemisphere marshes into carbon sequestration hot-spots.

How to help coastal wetlands

The coastlines of Africa, Australia, China and South America, where stable sea levels over the past few millennia have constrained accommodation space, contain about half of the world’s saltmarshes.

Saltmarsh on the shores of Westernport Bay in Victoria.
Author provided

A doubling of carbon sequestration in these wetlands, we’ve estimated, could remove an extra 5 million tonnes of CO₂ from the atmosphere per year. However, this potential benefit is compromised by the ongoing clearance and reclamation of these wetlands.

Preserving coastal wetlands is critical. Some coastal areas around the world have been cut off from tides to lessen floods, but restoring this connection will promote coastal wetlands – which also reduce the effects of floods – and carbon capture, as well as increase biodiversity and fisheries production.




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In some cases, planning for future wetland expansion will mean restricting coastal developments, however these decisions will provide returns in terms of avoided nuisance flooding as the sea rises.

Finally, the increased carbon storage will help mitigate climate change. Wetlands store flood water, buffer the coast from storms, cycle nutrients through the ecosystem and provided vital sea and land habitat. They are precious, and worth protecting.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of their colleagues, Janine Adams, Lisa Schile-Beers and Colin Woodroffe.The Conversation

Kerrylee Rogers, Associate Professor, University of Wollongong; Jeffrey Kelleway, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Environmental Sciences, Macquarie University, and Neil Saintilan, Head, Department of Environmental Science, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.