UNSW Takes on Climate Change

A multi-disciplinary team led by University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney researchers is releasing the first large-scale summary of how their estuaries – and the 80 per cent of NSW residents living on them – will be impacted by climate change.

According to UNSW, two out of three Australians and four out of five people in NSW are likely to have significantly altered lifestyles if estuaries – tidal rivers and harbors – become impacted by climate change.

To address this risk, UNSW Sydney’s water engineering researchers (working with NSW’s Government Scientists and Macquarie University) have launched a free online resource that enables scientists and all levels of government to assess and act on threats posed to the coastal estuaries by climate change.

Dr Valentin Heimhuber, from the Water Research Laboratory of UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and a lead researcher who helped develop the guide, describes estuaries as the “canary in the coal mine” for climate change.

“Estuaries are subjected to a ‘double-whammy’ of climate change impacts,” Dr Heimhuber said.  “On the land side, climate change is influencing rainfall and temperature patterns, which is critical for agricultural productivity and healthy ecosystems. On the ocean side, we have concerns with sea level rise and oceanic warming. Estuaries are where these two forces – land and ocean – collide, and it happens to be where most Australians live.”

Associate Professor Will Glamore, Chief Investigator at the Water Research Laboratory, UNSW, sees estuaries as the lifeblood of Australian society: “Our estuaries are where 80% of people live, work and play. This research highlights how the 180+ estuaries in NSW may be threatened by climate change.”

“This research shows that rising tides won’t just threaten our beaches. With climate change, the tide will penetrate into our harbors and estuaries, potentially impacting farm productivity and the environment.”

“Cities like Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong will need to adapt to the changing water regime. This includes our planning levels, our freshwater resources and everything that lives in and around our estuaries and harbors. The potential impact to our daily life is daunting and we are just beginning to understand the extent of the problem.”

Beyond the direct impact to humans, climate change may be devastating to the environment, A/Professor Glamore said.