Shaping the debate
In June 2016, a series of ‘superstorms’ caused wide- spread property and infrastructure damage in coastal and inland NSW. One of the hardest hit areas was Collaroy-Narrabeen, where the beach retreated by about 40 metres and dramatically swallowed backyards.
During, and in the immediate aftermath of the storms, engineers from UNSW’s Water Research Laboratory (WRL) played a central role in the intense media interest generated by these events - by first describing and interpreting the coastal impacts as they were unfolding, and then, as the wider impacts became apparent, by stepping in to a public advice role.
In this Q&A, Professor Ian Turner, Director of the WRL, takes us on a retrospective journey through the storms and shares his thoughts on how WRL is helping to shape the debate on a number of important national issues.
When the storm first hit Collaroy-Narrabeen, how was your team able to be on the scene first?
This storm actually came as no surprise to us at all. We are the custodians of a 40-year monitoring program along this stretch of coastline and have the ability to forecast whether or not a particular storm is going to have a significant impact.
We saw about five days out that this was probably going to be the largest storm of my career, so that’s why we and our collaborators from UNSW Aviation and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage were there with all our equipment, ready to monitor the pre- and post-storm condition of the coast, and quantify the impacts.
Is this forecasting ability something that could be applied elsewhere?
Definitely! We are already in discussions with a number of groups around Australia on building a coastal erosion forecasting capability; if we could see it coming at our site, there’s no reason why we can’t use the research that we’ve undertaken at Narrabeen-Collaroy to develop a generic coastal erosion forecasting system. These conversations are already well advanced, and I anticipate that they’ll lead to a multi-year collaboration with a number of agencies.
The media interest in the research coming out of WRL, in June was considerable. Has this exposure led to any new opportunities or surprising requests for information?
Yes, to both. During and for some time after the storm, team members from WRL were inundated with media requests in Australia and beyond. Because the dramatic images coming out of Australia during the storm were largely WRL’s images taken from drones, it generated an enormous amount of interest in our research group, especially in Europe. I even found myself doing live interviews on BBC TV.
More locally, opportunities have included discussions about upgrading the sea wall at Narrabeen-Collaroy, and we’re working with a number of other councils, assessing and quantifying damage at other locations along the coast. And then, outside the public more concentrated over a smaller area, and the rainfall is coming down more plentifully and with more glare, I’ve enjoyed some interesting engineering science communication opportunities like giving talks to high school students and interviews to journalism students.
We can’t coast along in the face of fierce storms NSW has only 15 identified hotspot areas along the coast: the total extent of hotspots is small – about 30km of a 1500km coast. However, the estimated value at risk is high. In high vulnerability areas, options include retreat, adapt and protect or combinations of these
Associate Professor Ron Cox, National Con- venor of the Climate Change Adaptation Research Network for Settlements and Infrastructure
Is taking on a public safety or advisory role an important direction you’d like WRL to take in the future?
Yes, it is. WRL, from its outset, has embraced both academic, fundamental research and applied research, addressing the harder water problems faced by governments and industry. Bridging those areas comes with an obligation to communicate those research outcomes and help inform public debate. We learned a lot of lessons during the June storms, and have already initiated a new digital media strategy so we hope to be able to respond and communicate even better in the future.
You’ve previously called for the establishment of a National Coastline Observatory, and these storms have likely given this extra credence, but why is this kind of facility important?
Australia is a uniquely coastal nation with 85 per cent of the population living on the coast. Our highly variable climate, coupled with the projected impact of climate change, will inevitably result in increased hazards to coastal communities. We have hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure right next to the ocean in these communities; not just homes, but cable lines, gas lines and sewers etc, so it’s important that we come up with solutions to protect them.
A National Coastline Observatory, that is able to monitor strategic sites along the whole coastline, will be a critical part of helping protect these vulnerable coastal communities into the future.
Cities face harsher, more concentrated rainfall
Dr Conrad Wasko and Professor Ashish Sharma made the news multiple times in 2016 with their research on how climate change not only intensifies storms, but draws them into narrower bands of more intense downpours:
"As global warming proceeds, storms are shrinking in space and in time. This means they are becoming more concentrated over a smaller area, and the rainfall is coming down more plentifully and with more intensity over a shorter period of time."
Dr Conrad Wasko, Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering
"Most cities, worldwide, have older stormwater infrastructure designed to handle rainfall patterns of the past, but these are no longer sufficient. This is especially noticeable in urban centres because there is less soil to act as a dampener. Once the drainage capacity is overwhelmed, there is nowhere else for the water to go and increased flooding will be the result."
Professor Ashish Sharma, ARC Future Fellow, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering