Preparing coastal communities for climate change

As the climate changes and sea levels rise, coastal communities become more vulnerable to hazards like coastal inundation and erosion. NIWA is working with coastal communities and councils on how to adapt to these impacts.

New Zealand sea levels are predicted to rise by 18–59 cm by 2090 as a result of climate change. To create the information and tools that coastal communities and councils need to adapt, NIWA is leading the ‘Coastal Adaptation to Climate Change’ project. The project, which is funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, has three strands. 

Building a national coastal vulnerability profile

NIWA coastal scientists are mapping coastal characteristics and vulnerability to climate change at regional and local scales. When complete, this information will be publically available via Coastal Explorer, a GIS-based tool accessible over the web.

Engaging and informing communities

As the sea level rises and comes further inland, coastal habitats will be squeezed into a smaller space between the sea and developed areas, and coastal hazards such as flooding and erosion will be exacerbated. Communities will need to be involved in decisions about how to adapt to these changes.

Coastal scientists selected Whitianga (on the Coromandel Peninsula) as one of their case studies to test ways of working with coastal communities throughout New Zealand. They ran three public forums there in 2010, initially using maps to communicate the likely impacts of sea level rise on Whitianga by the 2090’s. These showed possible inundation and flooding, habitat change, and coastal erosion.

The scientists also canvassed the community on valued aspects of Whitianga that may be threatened, and discussed ways of managing these threats. “We wanted to hear what people valued about the coast and get them thinking, at a very personal level, how those values might be affected,” says project leader Dr Helen Rouse.

For instance, people talked of wanting to protect their houses with rock walls. But sea walls can lead to the loss of sandy beaches valued for recreation. Conflicts like these will need to be resolved.

Environment Waikato and Thames Coromandel District Council are already using information gained in the Whitianga workshops in their regional smart growth strategy, the Coromandel Peninsula Blueprint project.

Encourage best-practice planning

Forward planning is crucial to adapt to potential impacts of climate change at the coast. NIWA’s project partners have surveyed council staff to get a national picture of the extent to which coastal adaptation to climate change is included in council plans and policies. The project team are pulling together all the lessons learned from the project to develop good practice guidelines to support long-term adaptation planning.

Contact: Dr Helen Rouse

Read more about our Coastal Adaptation to Climate Change project

Research subject: Climate changeCoasts