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Preparing communities for sea level rise and increased coastal flooding is a difficult task. Photo: Julie G (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Preparing communities for sea level rise and increased coastal flooding is a difficult task. Photo: Julie G (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Release date
29 Mar 2018
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Timothy Ramm
PhD Student

Can your community cope with rising tides?

By Timothy Ramm. This article first appeared in Issue One 2018 of Fire Australia.

As Texas and the Caribbean continue to recover from last year’s North Atlantic hurricane season, it is time for coastal communities to reflect on what makes a resilient community in the face of more frequent storm events, rising sea levels and changing coastal flooding patterns. How would you be affected? Would we fare any better in Australia?

In 2016, many Australians experienced the power of the sea with coastal storms battering houses along the east coast of Australia, whilst destroying jetties and smashing beaches in South Australia. Additionally, another sort of flooding is emerging abroad – nuisance flooding – that is increasingly causing disruption to people and infrastructure in US cities like Annapolis and Miami Beach.

Rising sea levels and changing coastal flood patterns will place increasing pressure on governments, business and residents to minimise impacts to people, properties and the environment. As Australia debates national energy reform and seeks to meet their emissions targets under the Paris agreement, it is imperative that planning continues for sea level rise, which will continue regardless of future emissions stabilisation.

Preparing communities for sea level rise and increased coastal flooding is a difficult task. Scientists know that change is underway, but exactly how much will come our way is uncertain. Do coastal authorities prepare for a sea-level rise of 20 centimetres or half a metre? What population change will occur? The extent and timing of such change may be uncertain, but that doesn’t mean communities can’t start planning for it now.

The legacy of existing infrastructure

Billion of dollars of infrastructure in Australia could be threatened by rising sea levels by the end of the century. Although such timeframes appear distant, planning and development decisions made today can have consequences many years from now. Coastal infrastructure such as roads, utilities, rail, residential and commercial buildings often last between 20-100 years and influence future developments within communities.

Over the coming decades, existing coastal infrastructure in vulnerable communities will be tested as sea level rise drives more frequent inundation and erosion events. This can cause direct and indirect losses to coastal residents, business and government.

How will rising sea levels affect you?

Climate change will not only affect our infrastructure, it will affect our beaches, and our access to other coastal environments; it will have real impacts on where we socialise and undertake recreational activities.

To better understand what aspects of people’s everyday lives are important, where certain values are associated with coastal landscapes, and what groups of people might be most disadvantaged by sea level rise, we undertook a study in a peri-urban seaside suburb in Tasmania.

We found that overall, the natural environment and the lifestyle that it affords was most important to residents. Such values were consistent with those identified in other south-eastern Australian studies.

Our study then segmented the seaside community into six groups based upon their life stage, lifestyles and unique social values. This allowed us to understand how people in the community might be affected differently from sea level rise.

We found that whilst the local beach was highly important for recreational value to families and active younger residents, for others (e.g. community-minded volunteers or retirees) manmade features such as community halls and ovals were likely to be of greater importance as they facilitate important social interactions for these people – considerations that are commonly not well accounted for in traditional risk assessments and planning.

Our work suggests that segmenting the community into groups to support adaptation planning can help to cater for the needs of everyone in the community. It can also improve the fairness of adaptation plans by better assigning the costs and benefits of adaptation, both socially and economically. Communities and business will have an increasing role to play in maintaining the momentum behind adaptation action. It’s time to start thinking about how rising sea levels might affect you and your community, and what your local council is doing to prepare for the future.

This article first appeared on the OzEWEX website and has been reproduced with permission. It has been modified slightly to reflect the passage of time and is based upon “A review of methodologies applied in Australian practice to evaluate long-term coastal adaptation options”, Climate Risk Management, June 2017, and “Advancing values-based approaches to climate change adaptation: A case study from Australia”, Environmental Science and Policy, July 2017.

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Index of Editions

Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a look at two checklists that are helping emergency management teams when there's a breakdown in communication, the findings on community preparedness after three catastrophic bushfires swept across NSW in early 2017, four utilisation case studies that are helping agencies and incident management tools to enhance communication and capability
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a recap of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, investigates what catastrophic flooding could look like in Sydney, asks if your coastal community can cope with rising sea levels, highlights our research in incident management development and looks at predicting blow up bushfires.
Issue Four 2017 of Fire Australia includes research on including animals in emergency planning, details from AFAC17, new priorities in natural hazards research, and a Black Saturday case study to develop guidelines for improved community messaging in bushfires.
Issue Three of Fire Australia for 2017 features new prediction software for predictions of bushfire spread, how NSW's geography curriculum allows students to become agents of change for community resilience, suggestions for reducing the risks involved in prescribed burning, research on the impacts of severe wind during Cyclone Debbie, and new natural hazards science at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2017 features information about a weather phenomena called a mountain wave that produces severe fire behaviour, an analysis of flood fatalities in Australia, what we can learn about disaster preparation from Indonesia, and leadership for our emergency service volunteers.
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2017 features firestorms, disaster resilience, fire preparation in Bangladesh and the International Day for Disaster Reduction.
PhD progress, human factors and decision-making capabilities, asbestos risk and the role of pharmacies in disasters are showcased in the Spring 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine.
The Winter 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine highlights important research including reducing hazard impacts with smarter spending, fire modelling and wind behaviour as well as the rewarding experience of PhD student placements in the sector.
Mitigating disasters: how damage from floods, fires and storms can be prevented through careful planning and investment; a new approach to flood forecasting using remote sensing data; and case studies from the CRC are highlighting paths to integrate bushfire science into government policy and planning.
Developing a smartphone app to measure fuels for bushfire, 2015's International Day for Disaster Reduction, a case study on the Be Ready Warrandyte initiative and a look at what could happen if Adelaide was hit by a large earthquake.