Leading oceanographer Dr John Church, of the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, says coastal communities need to prepare now for the consequences of rising sea levels.
Leading oceanographer Dr John Church, of the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, says coastal communities need to prepare now for the consequences of rising sea levels. David Nielsen

Rising sea levels put us at risk

SEA levels will rise by close to a metre by the end of the century, putting Northern Rivers coastal communities at risk, no matter what the world does to combat climate change.

This was the warning delivered by one of the world’s leading experts on sea levels at a conference in Byron Bay.

However, oceanographer Dr John Church warned the Australian Coastal Councils Conference at the Byron Bay Community and Cultural Centre things could get much worse if rising air and ocean temperatures caused a massive ice sheet covering Greenland – so big it could, by itself, lift sea levels by seven metres – to melt.

Dr Church, the co-convening lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Third Assessment Report, and 2007 winner of the Australian Museum’s Eureka Prize, said the inevitability of sea level rise meant coastal communities had to look for ways to adapt to increasingly frequent and violent storms, along with storm surges of the kind that virtually wiped out sections of the US city of New Orleans in 2005.

For people building on the coast that meant any one of a range of options, such as building protection works, building houses on stilts, or the controversial planned retreat policy favoured by Byron Shire Council.

Dr Church pointed to examples around the world of the different approaches – elevated storm surge refuges in Bangladesh had saved millions over the years; and the UK used planned retreat in some areas and extensive protection works in others, such as London, where billions of dollars worth of infrastructure is threatened by storm surges.

Dr Church said Australian communities faced increasing population pressures as the sea level continued its steady march upwards – presently averaging about 2mm per year – and millions of people fled homes in particularly vulnerable areas.

“We will have to deal with tens of millions of environmental refugees in the 21st Century, along with issues of food security and health,” he told the conference.



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