When Elaine Pearce left Sydney for the seaside peace of Old Bar 12 years ago she was assured her new house was a solid investment, with a century’s worth of frontage to guard against erosion.
But three neighbors have already lost their homes to the rising ocean and there are scores more at risk as roaring seas batter the idyllic beachside town, ploughing through 40m of foredune in just eight years.
“I wanted water frontage, and frontage I’m going to get,” Pearce joked.
Property values have dived along her once exclusive cul-de-sac, with homes once worth A$1.5 or A$2 million (US$1.5 or US$2 million) now abandoned and offered for A$300,000. Weathered “For Sale” signs dot the sidewalk.
Insurers will not cover homes for erosion and long-time local resident Allan Willan said the banks were even struggling to sell off the land on which the repossessed homes stand.
“They can’t even give it away,” said Willan, who estimates that another 5m of frontage could “easily” be lost in the next storm period.
“If it continues at this rate in seven years it’s going to be at the front door,” he said.
Old Bar is the most rapidly eroding and at-risk piece of coast in populous New South Wales (NSW) state, losing an average 1m of seafront every year and far outstripping other areas in terms of property at risk.
Andrew Short, director of Sydney University’s coastal studies unit and a government planning advisor, said the 4,000-person town was among the worst erosion sites in Australia, with huge volumes of sand routinely lost in storms.
Currently there are 14 similar “hot-spots” along the densely populated NSW coast — a region home to some 5.8 million Australians — with about 100 properties at risk.
However, Short said “many hundreds of properties, if not thousands” would be at risk in the next 50 to 100 years as sea levels rise due to climate change, with planning authorities factoring in a 1m increase over the next century.
Australia’s government estimates that more than A$226 billion in commercial, industrial and residential property and road and rail infrastructure is at risk from erosion and inundation by 2100. That forecast includes 274,000 homes.
Old Bar has been in the grip of an unprecedented storm period, in terms of both frequency and strength, and University of New South Wales oceanographer Matthew England said it was a trend likely to intensify.
“The sea level rise is one thing, but we’re expecting storms to become more intense and storm surges are what really hits these low-lying coastal communities,” England said.
England said a 1m sea level rise could “really quickly” become 4m during a wild weather event, bringing “a really incredible rise of water right up the coast that just can do huge amounts of damage.”
Even with a 50cm sea-level rise the government has warned that severe weather events currently considered to be once in a century, such as the major flooding of Brisbane in 2010, would happen several times a year by 2100.
More than 30 people died and tens of thousands of homes were swamped in the floods that swept across northern Australia and peaked in the nation’s third-largest city, Brisbane, forcing the city to a standstill for several days.
Major cities were expected to face profound challenges from erosion and inundation, with the government warning in a 2009 report that Sydney’s airport faced closure in the next 100 years due to its low-lying waterfront location.