Coastal areas most at risk – Australia State of Environment Report 2016

Australia’s latest assessment of the nation’s environmental condition, released last month, reports that while most of Australia’s environments are generally in good condition, the state of the environment in more populated coastal areas and urban growth areas is poor and deteriorating.

The latest five-yearly State of Environment Report, written by 18 of Australia’s leading scientists, finds that governments are doing a poor job of collaborating and coordinating policies. They call for national leadership and specific programs with reliable funding to preserve Australia’s unique environments and deal with climate change.

Dr Graeme Clark and Professor Emma Johnston, authors of the report’s chapter on Coasts, make the point that: ‘Our coast is intimately linked to our national economy, industry, arts, social lifestyle and cultural identify, with more than 85% of Australians living within 50 kms of the sea.’ But they warn that we risk ‘loving our coast to death’ as its amenities and resources attract intensive human use.

They say that pressures on the coastal environment are strongly related to catchment land use and development and state: ‘In urban areas, the intensity of pressures is generally correlated with human population densities. Australia has continued to increase in population since the 2011 state of the environment report, and most of that growth has been on the coast.’

The report states that ‘some pressures apply to all areas of the coast… and the most important of these is climate change. Coasts are particularly sensitive to climate change because of rising sea levels, which are predicted to cause extensive erosion and inundation in coming decades. Since 2011, coasts have experienced more frequent and severe extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and large storms, and these have had significant ecological impacts.’

The authors state that the outlook for the coast focuses on the escalating trajectory of climate-related pressures. ‘These are expected to become increasingly prominent, and unlike most other pressures, affect the entire coast.’ They say that sea level rise is a key pressure that Australia is only just beginning to experience, and one that will have increasingly conspicuous impacts in future decades.

‘If greenhouse gas production is not rapidly reduced, the rate of sea level rise is predicted to reach almost 12mm per year or higher by 2100, depending on the behaviour of the Antarctic ice shelves. Increased sea level will not only shift the position of intertidal and aquatic habitats, it will also cause extensive erosion and recession.’

Dr Graeme Clark will present the findings of the report’s chapter on Coasts at the 2017 Australian Coastal Councils Conference, at Redcliffe in Queensland, on Thursday 4 May. The full Australia State of Environment 2016 report is available here.