Life Science Environment A community waits to be swamped by the rising seas of climate change

A community waits to be swamped by the rising seas of climate change

The relentless sea creeps ever closer to the vulnerable community of Indented Head Photo: ABC
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As Vicki Perrett plays with her granddaughter Rachel on the beach in front of her home on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, she knows she has to cherish these moments – and not because children grow up so fast.

She also knows the beach they play on may not be there forever.

“The beach is coming closer towards us, towards the road and towards our property,” Ms Perrett says.

“It’s very prone to sea level rise here and to storm surges.”

This stretch of coastline at Indented Head has already been earmarked as at risk of going underwater by 2100.

Ms Perrett’s house is also in the danger zone.

It was identified as one of 1,614 properties across the Greater Geelong region that may be faced with future flooding under a 0.8-metre sea level rise.

“Our property is about 20cm above sea level. There are others along the foreshore here that are actually below sea level,” Ms Perrett says.

“Probably not in our lifetime will the actual property be flooded, I would like to hope, but clearly, the foreshore is getting slowly eroded.”

Vicki Perrett lives in fear of her Indented Head home being engulfed by high tides and storm surges. Photo: ABC

The Victorian Government has instructed all councils to plan for a 0.8m sea level rise by the year 2100.

That figure is based on a 2007 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which agreed on the projected rise, but could not rule out larger increases.

Although the worst impacts of sea level rises may still be decades away, this bayside community, about an hour-and-a-half south of Melbourne, has already had a taste of what is to come.

Planning ahead

Four years ago, a “triple whammy” of a low-pressure system, strong onshore winds and very high tides battered the coastline.

“Parts of the foreshore all the way from where we’re living down to Portarlington [about 6 kilometres away] were inundated … so we know what happens and what it does to infrastructure,” Ms Perrett says.

The City of Greater Geelong recently submitted its Land Subject to Inundation Overlay to the State Planning Minister for approval.

Once signed off, it means any properties within the predicted inundation zone, including Ms Perrett’s home at Indented Head, will require a planning permit for new buildings and renovations, with permit conditions usually requiring floor levels to be above the predicted flood levels.

Ms Perrett says she understands councils need to mitigate their risk, and the overlay would be useful information for anyone buying or building a property within the inundation zone.

But she feels more needs to be done to support residents whose property prices may be affected in the long term.

“I can’t mitigate my risk. I’ve rung my insurer, they won’t change my insurance policy so we just have to suffer the consequences,” she says.

“For the existing property owners, we’re being told that, ‘Oh don’t worry, it’s not going to affect your property value.’ But I think the subtext to that is we don’t want to have to reduce your rates.

“That clearly would impact on Council’s revenue.”

CSIRO climate scientist Dr Kathleen McInnes said previous predictions estimated sea level rises between 0.5m and 1m by the end of the century.

CSIRO climate scientist Kathleen McInnes sees a wet and perilous future. Photo: ABC

The 0.8m predicted sea-level rise quoted in the Victorian Government’s directive to councils is “towards the upper range” of those predictions, she says.

But a report released last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change increased the predicted sea level rise range to between 0.6m and 1.1m.

Dr McInnes said it coincided with data that showed sea level rises were accelerating.

“Sea levels rose about 1.8 millimetres per year over the 20th century,” Dr McInnes said.

“But in the last 30 years, the rate of rise has increased to about 3.6mm per year.”

Damp and dire projections

Dr McInnes leads the CSIRO’s climate extremes and projections group, which has contributed to the mapping of high-risk areas.

Publicly available mapping tools, such as Coastal Risk Australia, allow anyone to find out how their local area would fare under different sea-level rise scenarios.

Dr McInnes said it was important for local communities to know whether they were at risk so they could decide whether to invest in adaptation strategies, such as infrastructure, to protect the coastline, or simply retreat from the danger zone.

“Land subject to inundation is land that is low-lying, that is potentially at risk from inundation during extreme sea-level events or even potentially high-tide events in the future,” Dr McInnes said.

“We know that from our projections … that we can expect a two to threefold increase in the frequency of inundation events as a result of a projected sea-level rise.”

Dr McInnes says while the worst impacts will be felt during storm surges, there might be some areas that will suffer more permanent flooding.

“If [the land] is low enough, it could be permanently inundated,” she said.

“Parts of Swan Bay [on the Bellarine Peninsula] could potentially become quite affected by inundation, certainly high-tide inundation, in the future.”

Not just regional areas

Dr McInnes says Melbourne suburbs such as Elwood, Aspendale and Mordialloc are also at risk of more-regular flooding in future.

The insurance impacts of identifying risk

You may think an overlay such as this would have consequences for a property’s insurance costs, but Insurance Council of Australia spokesman Campbell Fuller says overlays that show future sea-level rises should have no impact on current insurance premiums.

“Insurers price risks for the duration of the policy, typically 12 months, and climate change is not a component of premiums,” he said.

And actions of the sea are one of the most common policy exclusions.

“However, measures that seek to anticipate and prepare for sea-level rises caused by climate change are positive,” he said.

“Overlays will help inform communities about the impact of climate change and may encourage governments and property owners to invest in mitigation, resilience and adaptation programs.”

But what it means for property values is yet to be seen.

Many of the submissions the City of Greater Geelong received from residents spoke of a fear their property’s value would be significantly decreased.

Councillor Trent Sullivan says the overlay is about “taking a proactive attitude towards protecting our coastal areas and communities” and is based off scientific reports, hazard assessments and inundation mapping.

Cr. Trent Sullivan hopes planning changes can blunt climate change’s impact. Photo: Geelong Council

“We all know how vulnerable our coastal communities are to climate change and storm surge events, so this is an added layer of protection for our residents,” he said.

“This should reduce the risk to public safety, private property, agricultural losses and protects our residents.”

Ms Perrett is resigned to the fact that her property’s value may decrease as the risk goes up in coming years, meaning her family’s inheritance may not be as valuable as it is now.

But the dedicated community member, who heads a local environmental group, is vice-president of the community association and previously sat on the local coastal committee, says she just wants to make sure she’s doing everything in her power to address climate change.

‘Move now’

“We’re mindful that we won’t be leaving much of a legacy to our children,” she said.

“I hate to think that [my granddaughter] won’t get to enjoy the summers that I had when I was her age growing up here and holidaying here — it was just a very carefree lifestyle and very idyllic, swimming and sailing and fishing and exploring the beach.

“I certainly do have a lot of friends that are telling me, ‘You should move now’. [But] we don’t want to move. We love our community. We’re probably more connected to our community than with anywhere we’ve lived in our lives. So it’s a very special place.”

Ms Perrett says she feels more needs to be done to encourage homeowners and businesses across the region to reduce their carbon emissions.

“We can live our lives with as small a carbon footprint as possible,” she said.

“It’s all of our responsibility. We all make choices and, clearly, we need to solve the problems together.”