Published: 17 January 2013
Wetlands are being wedged
Australia’s coastal wetlands will be increasingly trapped between urban development on land and an ocean rising as a result of climate change, imperilling the survival of unique plants, birds and fish, leading ecologists have warned.
Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) say Australia’s planners and coastal communities need to think up to 100 years ahead to ensure the survival of mangroves, salt marshes, sedge lands and melaleuca swamps and their wildlife.
‘Sea levels are currently predicted to rise by up to 1 metre during this century – and there are indications they may be rising even faster than this,’ says Dr Jonathan Rhodes of CEED and The University of Queensland.
‘In past periods of rising sea levels, coastal wetlands have coped by migrating inland as the salt waters rose – but today, especially along the east coast of Australia, they are likely to run into urban development on and behind the coast.
‘Unless we can make room for them to move, there is a risk they may go locally extinct – along with the bird, fish and other wildlife they support, and the services they provide to humans.’
Dr Rhodes and colleagues Ms Rebecca Runting and Dr Morena Mills have been using a computer model called SLAMM (Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model) to identify areas where coastal wetlands would naturally retreat to as the ocean comes up – and where existing or future urban development may intrude.
‘It isn’t just about looking at the land contours – you also have to factor in changes in erosion and sediment deposition, in salinity levels and the effects of man-made structures, if you want to work out where mangroves and salt marshes could move to in the future,’ Ms Runting says.
‘These models give you a much better idea of what is going to happen than the so-called “bath-tub” models that only account for water level.’
Dr Rhodes says while many Australian coastal cities and towns now take steps to conserve existing mangroves and salt marshes, these may prove in vain if they don’t look and plan a century or more ahead to account for rising sea levels, which will bring dramatic change to coastal landscapes.
‘It’s true you can build a one kilometre long sea wall at a cost of about $7-8 million per metre in height and put urban development in behind it – but the reality is that we’re not going to be able to defend the entire Australian coastline with such measures, as sea levels will keep on rising as long as the climate is warming and the polar ice melting.’
Ice-cap melting may last for centuries and could eventually raise sea levels by tens of metres, scientists fear.
The CEED team’s research indicates that as sea-levels begin to rise, mangroves may be initial winners and salt marshes losers in the struggle for new places to survive. But if sea-level rise accelerates, even mangroves may fail to keep up, and may need to be translocated.
The same applies to threatened native animals such as the false water rat, which suffers from cat predation as its mangrove habitat becomes increasingly impacted by urbanisation.
‘Sea-level rise means that anyone and anything that lives along the coast has to be ready and willing to move – and our research is helping provide the answers about where they might move to, in plenty of time to do something about it,’ says Dr Rhodes.