Coastal erosion damages Byron beaches

Byron Bay is known for its laidback lifestyle and it’s nine beautiful surfing beaches, which make Australia’s most easterly town something of a tourist mecca.


Warning signs at the Clarkes Beach entry point advise people to stay off the dunes to prevent further erosion and to avoid injury.Photo: Ashleigh Hartley

However, the ongoing threat of coastal erosion is causing problems for what are easily the town’s great assets; the beaches.

Instances of coastal erosion are not a new thing in Byron Bay, but according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels are rising at a rate of about one-eighth of an inch per year, which is leading to destructive and deadly storm surges pushing further inland, resulting in more flood events that are washing away land and beaches.

Coastal expert and research fellow for Griffith University’s Coastal Management Centre, Marcello Sano, said rising sea levels were causing the water to advance on the seashore, which was slowly eroding the beach.

“If there is no action taken there can be a scenario where there is a lack of beach in the long run, but it is not something that is straight forward,” Dr Sano said.

“Anything could happen really,” he said.

“Sand moves around in Byron and comes and goes.

“Overall, there is a trend for erosion and sea level rise, which is causing erosion, but that is not only applied to Byron Bay.”

Dr Sano said the best technique to manage coastal erosion depended on the budget and capacity of the local council.

“Usually, what is best is to try and mimic nature, and to restore natural processes by adding sand to the system,” he said.

“The risk of [mimicking nature] is you put sand into a system that is really dynamic.”

“It is like a river of sand flowing from the south to the north, and so if you add sand to that river, it’s possible it might disappear if you don’t put in infrastructure to keep it in place.”

The entry points at Clarkes Beach
High tide in early July caused coastal damage the entry points at Clarkes Beach in Byron Bay that resulted in an erosion event.Photo: Ashleigh Hartley


In 2013, research data by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator (NOAA) predicted a worse case 0.74 metres sea level rise in Byron Bay over the upcoming years, which could drastically impact properties in low-lying areas.

Yet the latest report by the NOAA, which was released in 2017, predicted a further sea level rise of up to two metres.

The NOAA report said this trend was a direct result of Antarctic icesheet instability.

The rise in sea levels is predicted to greatly impact the Byron Shire, with hundreds of million dollars of property and assets at risk of being submerged under the rising sea levels.

Byron Shire Council’s coastal and biodiversity coordinator Chloe Dowsett said the damage caused by coastal erosion in the Byron Shire had been a long-standing issue.

“Coastal processes are complex and dynamic in Byron Shire due to past geological processes, formation of the coastline, and the interaction with these processes [such as] waves, currents, tides,” Ms Dowsett said.

“Coastal hazards such as coastal erosion and shoreline recession, being the landward movement of the shoreline over time, appear to be occurring at a faster rate in Byron due to the complex nature of these processes and their interaction,” she said.

“Our coastline has endured a long history of large coastal storms and coastal erosion and Cape Byron tends to act like a groyne, at times limiting the movement of sand around the Cape and into the beaches.”

Sandbags for Clarkes Beach
Sandbags were transported to Byron Bay to assist in works being done on Clarkes Beach after the king tide caused massive damage to walkways.Photo: Ashleigh Hartley


In early July, Clarkes Beach experienced coastal erosion triggered by the high tide, causing severe damage to entry points, including access tracks from the coastal reserve to the beach.

Byron Shire Council officials released a statement describing the area as “hazardous” and warned the public to avoid the area.

Byron Shire Council’s director of infrastructure services, Phil Holloway, said in a statement released by council in early July that Clarkes Beach had seen significant coastal erosion and dunes could potentially collapse.

“People are urged to not walk or sit close to the erosion escarpment and not to allow children (or anyone) to play or dig near the dunes,” Mr Holloway said in the statement.

“Clarkes Beach is presently starved of sand due to the limited sand bypassing Cape Byron.”

“Plus, we’ve had high tides and dangerous surf conditions.”

The high tide that eroded Clarkes Beach also created an escarpment at New Brighton Beach of around one metre in front of existing dunes.

In the past, significant erosion events have caused damage to both Byron Shire beaches and to properties situated close to the water.

Many notable events occurred in the 1970s, which, according to the Byron Shire Council website, were filled with storms that greatly impacted the Byron Shire coastal residents.

In 1972, Belongil Beach experienced such severe erosion that residents placed old car bodies along the toe of the scarp in efforts to reduce the damage caused by the large swell.

Dune erosion at New Brighton beach
Dune erosion at New Brighton beach increased in height after a coastal erosion event in June, which washed trees onto the beach.Photo: Ashleigh Hartley


In 1974, Cyclone Pam caused coastal erosion that resulted in property loss at a small settlement of 17 houses known as Sheltering Palms Village.

The property damage was so severe the council were forced to remove the village.

It was after these incidents that the 1978 The Byron Bay to Hasting Point Erosion Study was conducted by the NSW Department of Public Works.

This study established the existence of a long-term erosion trend in the area, stating the coastline was receding at an average rate of 1.5 metres per year at Byron Bay.

With the rate of recession identified, the study believed $14 million worth of public and private assets were at risk over the next 50 years for the Byron Bay to Hasting Point region.

The recommendation of this report resulted in the Byron Shire Council’s Planned Retreat policy, which is about trying to maintain a future 20-metre buffer along the dune or coastal strip that is development free.

Brunswick Heads Surf Life Saving Club president Craig Reid said he had seen a number of erosion events during his 17 years as club president.

“We had a big erosion event take place in, I think, 2008,” Mr Reid said.

“There was a big east coast flow and we lost a lot of sand off the beach and there was a big drop off at that time,” he said.

“When that major erosion event happened in about 2008, there were a lot of the old access tracks, a long way under the sand, exposed and you could see the other events that had happened.”

Mr Reid advised people to remain cautious of large sand dunes, as they posed a threat of collapsing.

“If people are walking close to the edge the whole thing can collapse,” he said.

“Anything over head height you should steer clear of.”

“You also have to watch the edge [of the dunes].

“There can be anything sharp or dangerous in those sand dunes and you can cut yourself pretty badly.”