Beach erosion in Australia: 10 iconic beaches that are disappearing

"See it before it gets ruined" might be a tourist-trade cliché, but when it comes to our beaches, many are indeed on borrowed time.

According to Nature Climate Change, Australia is the country most affected by beach erosion. It estimates 11,426 kilometres of coastline are threatened, and 40 per cent of beaches might be lost.

The problem is complex. Sea-level rises and increased storm surges due to climate change are partly to blame, as well as human intervention such as dredging, seawalls and urban development.

But natural forces such as currents, groundwater, wave height and direction are also at play. Headland bypassing, a cyclical change in wave conditions, caused the recent much-publicised erosion of Byron Bay's beaches.

"Australia has a highly dynamic coastline of over 30,000 kilometres with many unique environments," says Maree Wilson from Geoscience Australia. "Understanding how our coastal environments have been historically affected by pressures such as extreme weather, sea-level rise and human development is vital to managing our coastlines."

Solutions aren't easy, especially as numerous stakeholders are involved, such as community groups, local councils, and various state and federal government departments.

And it isn't only holidaymakers who are impacted. According to Geoscience Australia, 700,000 Australian homes are either within three kilometres of the coast, or less than five metres above sea level.

"We have to adapt to the beach erosion that we can no longer prevent, if we are to continue enjoying our beaches," concludes John Church, chair professor of the Climate Change Research Centre at UNSW.

"This means we need appropriate planning, such as beach nourishment (adding sand to beaches to combat erosion) and other soft and hard engineering solutions. In some cases, we'll even need to retreat from the coast to allow the beach to migrate landward."

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Here are 10 well-known Australian beaches and coastlines in danger of being swallowed by the sea.

Apollo Bay, Great Ocean Road, Vic

The Age, News, 08/01/2019. Photo by Jackson Hayat. Erosion on Apollo Bay beaches with Pete Fillmore. Photo: Jackson Hayat

Photo: Jackson Hayat

Hard to beat Apollo Bay, with its seal colonies and lush Otways backdrop. But sections of the famous tourist road, constructed in the early-twentieth century to run close to the ocean and capture its views, will have to be relocated or risk being submerged. Part of the carpark and walkway at Apollo Bay have already succumbed. Sand has been relocated, and seawalls are being considered.

Summerland Beach, Phillip Island, Vic

Phillip Island has one of the most tourist-dependent economies in Australia, and Summerland is world-famous for its penguins. But erosion is an ongoing issue, made worse during storm events. Gravel has started appearing at the beach's western end. A 2014 report by Phillip Island Nature Park determined the beach would retreat eight metres by 2040. The ocean has also been nibbling at Cowes' waterfront.

Inverloch Beach, Inverloch, Vic

The Age, News, May 15, 2020. An excavator builds an emergency rock wall in an attempt to prevent coastal erosion on the beach at Inverloch. Photo by Royce Millar.
For story by Royce Millar

An excavator builds an emergency rock wall on the beach at Inverloch in March last year. Photo: Royce Millar

This popular surf beach and favoured holiday spot has retreated more than 30 metres in the last decade. The surf lifesaving club's observation post has been moved further inland. Storm surges in September 2019 saw more beach vanish, and the waterfront is almost at the road. In May 2020, a revetment (retaining wall) was completed, but this won't provide lasting protection.

Portsea Beach, Mornington Peninsula, Vic

Photograph shows the erosion of Portsea beach where rocks have become exposed due to the sand washing away. Portsea locals believe that the beach has disappeared as a consequence of the dredging of Port Phillip Bay.
Picture by PAUL ROVERE / THE AGE
4 June 2010

Erosion after dredging photographed in 2010. Photo: Paul Rovere

The beach made famous by early sea-bathing, and later by ironman competitions and millionaires' mansions, has almost entirely disappeared over the last decade. Channel deepening in 2008 for Port Phillip Bay is the likely suspect (disputed by the state government). So far, the only solution has been sandbagging and the construction of a temporary rock bund. Some serious sand relocation is proposed.

Main Beach, Byron Bay, NSW

Byron Bay Erosion: Main Beach Byron Bay Tuesday 15th December 2020. Photo Danielle Smith / SMH
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Photo: DANIELLE SMITH

In late 2020, one of Australia's best-known tourist beaches (and adjacent Clarkes Beach) was entirely overtaken by high tides, which eroded dunes and left behind masses of driftwood and debris. Sandbagging was introduced to protect businesses. In April 2021, more large swells caused trees to collapse onto the beach. Byron Shire Council now urges visitors to stay off the sand dunes and only use designated beach-access points.

Narrabeen Beach, Sydney, NSW

Beach sand erosion along Narrabeen beach on high tide as large southerly swells hit the coast. Photographed Thursday. 29th November 2018. Photograph by James Brickwood. SMH NEWS 181129

Erosion along Narrabeen beach in 2018. Photo: James Brickwood

This beach, well known to surfers for its North Narrabeen break, hosted a World Surf League competition in April. But in early 2020 a storm surge at Narrabeen and nearby Collaroy caused backyards and decks to collapse onto the sand. More than 900 homes were evacuated, and 25 metres of beach vanished. Northern Beaches Council says it is ranked third in Australia for at-risk coastal areas.

Stockton Beach, Newcastle, NSW

Stockton Beach, famous for four-wheel drives and camel rides on giant dunes, has lost huge amounts of sand. Last year cabins at Stockton Caravan Park and a childcare centre were relocated to prevent them from tipping into the ocean. The City of Newcastle says millions of cubic metres of sand are needed to return the beach to its former glory, and is reinforcing seawalls. Artificial reefs and headlands are being considered.

Post Office Rock, Beachport, SA

Seawater is expected to break through the dunes at one of Australia's fastest-eroding beaches in the next decade. The Pool of Siloam, popular with tourists for its super-salty buoyancy, will be submerged. Plans are underway to move the Bowman Scenic Drive inland. The shoreline has retreated 135 metres since the first aerial photo was taken in 1946, says a council report.

Palm Beach, Gold Coast, Qld

Since 2019, an artificial $18.2m reef has protected one of the Gold Coast's most vulnerable beaches from wave action. Substantial amounts of extra sand have been added. In 2017 alone, three million cubic metres of sand were delivered onto the Gold Coast's shrinking beaches. A six-kilometre pipeline, due this year, will deliver sand onto the northern coast, including Surfers Paradise.

Port Beach, Fremantle, WA

Perth is necklaced with 160 kilometres of beautiful beaches, and most are under threat. Following a 2019 storm, erosion and coughed-up industrial debris became so severe that Port Beach had to be closed. The City of Fremantle maintains that a "managed retreat" is the only solution. Other beaches at risk include Floreat, Scarborough, adjacent surf beach Trigg, and Mettams Pool.

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