As communities plan for higher tides, concerns over axing of key agency

Modelling of future sea levels identifies Lakes Entrance as one of Australia’s most vulnerable coastal communities. Local authorities are concerned that a federal funding cut will thwart their capacity to prepare. Peter Donelly reports for our special series, Going Under.


Protected from the wild waves of Bass Strait by a fragile strip of sand dunes, Lakes Entrance, the tourist and commercial fishing hub in East Gippsland, sits in one of the most vulnerable coastal areas in Australia.

Coastal flooding at Lakes Entrance 2007. Source: Rex Candy East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority

Floods have regularly inundated low-lying Lakes Entrance, in the heart of the environmentally sensitive Gippsland lakes system.  In 1952, floodwater reached the one-metre-high windowsills of the town’s largest hotel. Local authorities have been planning for years for more flooding as sea levels rise. A 2015 CSIRO analysis on Gippsland’s climate change vulnerability determined that by 2030, seas would be up to 0.20m above the 1986-2005 level, and by 2070 rise by up to 0.59m under a continuing high emissions scenario, which is close to the current track. The height of extreme sea level events like king tides will also increase.

In the foreseeable future, Kate Nelson, East Gippsland shire’s director of community and strategic development, believes the greatest threat to Lakes Entrance is the disruption to people’s lives and the depressing psychological effects caused by frequent floods that will be made worse by rising sea level.

“Rather than waves crashing over the town, it’s more likely residents and tourists will no longer be able to tolerate the stagnant pools and impassable roads left after floods,” she says.  “Fed up with water damage to their homes and businesses, and despairing their future prospects, people will simply go elsewhere.”

But there are efforts to shore up the community, physically and psychologically. Ms Nelson is leading the implementation of the Lakes Entrance Growth and Adaptation Strategy to help the community prepare for floods and quickly recover from them.

“If townsfolk are prepared mentally and in practical terms for flooding, and feel confident they can adapt, the town can survive,” she says.

“It requires long-term planning that’s supported by everyone, and investment in infrastructure.”

But she says that people’s confidence in the plan could quickly be eroded if credible, up-to-date information about of rising sea level and climate change is not readily available to local planners. And there are widespread concerns about that the capacity of coastal communities to anticipate and adapt will be weakened by the Federal Government’s decision to stop funding the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) from this year.

“Local planners will be left without the crucial adaptation information they require as complex changes occur to the sea level and the climate,” Ms Nelson says.

“The Commonwealth government is not really playing in the coastal adaptation space at the moment.  It doesn’t make sense – NCCARF’s work has proved incredibly valuable for Lakes Entrance’s adaptation strategy.

“We are assuming the sea level will increase by 0.8 of a metre by 2100. That’s the figure specified for planning purposes in the state government’s Victorian Coastal Strategy 2008.  It’s a 10-year old figure, but it’s all we have to work on.

“The sea won’t rise in a regular linear way each year; there could be many tipping points such as a major melting of ice in Antarctica that suddenly increases the sea level.” How quickly, and how much, the Antarctic ice will melt is one of the most urgent and active questions of scientific investigation, with a recently published study indicating the melt rate has tripled in the past 25 years.

“We need expert advice relevant to Lakes Entrance to properly plan when these events occur,” Ms Nelson says.

“People need information they can trust to make decisions about the viability of their lives in Lakes Entrance.”

Ms Nelson says the ‘CoastAdapt’ online tool developed by NCCARF, which provides local mapping of sea level increases, is an excellent resource for small communities undertaking adaptation planning.  However, the Commonwealth’s funding cut has left its future uncertain. (A short video showing how coastal authorities have been using NCCARF resources and planning for the future can be found here.)

“And the cost of getting similarly reliable climate adaptation information from private sector consultants would be prohibitive for most local government agencies.”

Professor Jean Palutikof, the director of NCCARF, which is based at Griffith University in Queensland, confirmed that research on coastal vulnerabilities might cease because of the federal government’s funding cut.  “CoastAdapt will continue to at least 30 June 2019, possibly longer, but it’s impossible to predict whether federal government support of NCCARF will change,” she says.

Dr John Church was a research scientist for the CSIRO from 1978 to 2016 and is internationally recognised among the world’s leading authorities on sea level rise.  He says the defunding of NCCARF will mean that the sea level rise projections will not be updated on the CoastAdapt web site, resulting in local councils (and others) not having updated information to plan adaption.

“The cuts in funding to CSIRO have meant that the underpinning work to provide the sea level projections has been cut back,” he says.

“CSIRO therefore now has more limited ability to update these projections, further hampering coastal adaption planning.”

However, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Energy, which funded NCCARF, says that “local government bodies can continue to obtain information about sea level rise and adaptation through the Climate Change in Australia website and CoastAdapt”.

“NCCARF is committed to keep CoastAdapt online through to 30 June 2019. Information is also available via Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology,” the spokesperson says.

“Local government bodies in Victoria can also access Victorian state government’s resources about sea level rise and climate adaptation. For example, catchment management authorities have regional climate change adaptation planning and sea level rise information.”

Tim Bull, the National Party member for Gippsland East in the Victorian Parliament, is a strong supporter of the plan to adapt Lakes Entrance to rising sea level, but is concerned about the quality of information available to planners.

“The scientists don’t seem to be on the same page, so we are not really sure what will happen,” he says.

“The scientists monitoring sea level change must provide consistent and accurate information if we’re to successfully adapt.”

Mr Bull says he recognises changes to sea level and climate are occurring. “But even with periodic flooding, Lakes Entrance will remain a viable tourist and residential town for years to come with proper planning,” he argues.

“Schools, police stations and other public infrastructure have a limited life span, so they can be built on low-lying land that may flood in the longer term.  And even if they do flood, we’ll restore them and then it’s business as usual.”

However, Bairnsdale climate activist Peter Gardner does not accept that Lakes Entrance can adapt to future floods.

Mr Gardner, a Gippsland historian and climate science observer, believes rising sea level combined with weather extremes such as severe droughts, followed by increasingly severe floods and storms will eventually make the town uninhabitable.

“The drainage and sewerage systems will fail first, possibly within the next 30 years,” he says.

“But once the sand dunes have been breached, it is unlikely that Lakes Entrance will survive in anything resembling its current form.

“Adapting to the expected rise in sea level is impossible, so I believe the people of Lakes Entrance will eventually have to move to higher ground.”

This map prepared by Coastal Risk Australia models high tides in 2100 around Lakes Entrance and the Gippsland Lakes. It presumes a high emissions scenario, which is close to the present course. Dark blue shows present day highest tides; light blue models highest tides in 2100. This tool can be accessed for any site on the Australian coast at this site:

For more resources, modelling, and explanations of the science of sea level rise, the following resources are useful:

CoastAdapt: An accessible information platform designed, developed and delivered by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF).
The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF): Based at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, NCCARF has a national focus across Australia to build resilience to climate change in government, NGOs and the private sector.
Geoscience Australia’s OzCoasts online coastal information service: An Australian Government agency providing comprehensive coastal information.
Coastal Risk Australia: An interactive map tool designed to communicate coastal inundation associated with sea level rise to the year 2100. Using Google Earth Engine technology, CRA allows you to investigate the extent of coastal inundation using the latest 3D models of the Australian coastline.