Climate change and the Torres Strait
Climate change is a very significant issue for Torres Strait communities, many of which are situated on low-lying islands exposed to sea level rise impacts.
Increasing air and sea temperatures and changes to ocean acidity bring a number of risks to the region’s environment, community health, local economies, infrastructure and services.
TSRA has been proactive in building a better understanding of these risks and working with Traditional Owners, Councils and other partner organisations to develop adaptation options. It is timely to take serious action to address the impacts that climate change will continue to bring to the Torres Strait.
What changes are expected for the Torres Strait?
- Rising sea levels – sea levels in the region are currently increasing at a rate of between 6-8 mm per year, and will continue to rise into the future.
- Changes to the ocean environment – the oceans are becoming warmer and as carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere increase, so too are the levels of CO2 in the oceans. This is causing the oceans to become more acidic.
- More hotter days – as global average temperatures increase, we will continue to see an increase in periods of hotter than normal days and more hot days per year.
- More intense rainfall – while overall annual rainfall is unlikely to change very much, it is likely wet season rain will be more intense where it can lead to localised flooding and damage.
- A longer dry season – conversely the period when it does rain is likely to shrink and the dry season is likely to be longer. Overall variability in the weather and seasons is likely to increase.
What are the main climate change impacts for the Torres Strait?
The impacts below come mostly from within or close to our region. There are also likely to be impacts that come from how climate change affects Australia and the broader global community.
Human Capital – The outlook for health and wellbeing
- Increased heat stress from more frequent hotter days.
- Increased transmission of diseases, such as mosquito borne diseases, and increased reliance on better hygiene standards.
- Mental stress arising from the possibility of future displacement from some islands or other climate stressors.
- Broader disruptions to economies and infrastructure that divert resources from the health sector and undermine heath resilience.
Financial Capital – The outlook for enterprise and the economy
- Declines in local availability and or productivity of key fisheries species.
- Storm and sea-level impacts on infrastructure that underpins economic activities.
- Increased cost burden for replacement, repair and maintenance of infrastructure.
- Damage to potential tourism assets (natural and built).
- Impacts on productivity from health impacts.
Natural Capital – The outlook for land and sea
- Changes in ocean temperature and chemistry will negatively impact many marine species and ecosystems, in particular coral reefs, seagrass meadows (and therefore dugong and turtles).
- Increased rainfall in PNG catchments may lead to reduced water quality in the northern Torres Strait.
- Changes in rainfall and seasons and hotter days and increased risk of bushfires will negatively impact terrestrial (land) plants and animals.
- Sea-level rise is a major threat to mangroves, coastal areas, coastal ecosystems and coastal amenity.
Physical Capital – The outlook for infrastructure and services
- Extreme weather is likely to disrupt services and damage infrastructure.
- Changing temperatures, increased variability and changes in air and ocean chemistry will decrease the lifespan of infrastructure.
- Sea-level rise and storm surge threatens some key maritime, aviation and road transport infrastructure.
- Warmer temperatures and mosquito borne disease pose a risk to water security.
- Increased fire risk is also a threat to some infrastructure.
Social Capital – The outlook for community and Ailan Kastom
- Outdoor activities will become increasingly restricted to cooler times or cooler locations.
- The number of people experiencing financial stress will increase without substantial efforts to reduce cost of living and expand local economies.
- The demand for emergency services will continue to increase in response to direct and indirect impacts of climate change.
- Access to some key marine food resources are likely to decline over time and increased climate variability may impact local food production.
- There is a risk community services may suffer due to increased demand coupled with reduced financial and human resources to support effective delivery.
The science and monitoring
TSRA’s climate work focused initially was on gaining a better understanding of what climate related changes were occurring in the region. Coastal erosion and flooding studies were undertaken across the region and a number of monitoring programs were initiated. These include monitoring of tides across the region, monitoring sea level, monitoring changes in the ocean and installation of a number of weather stations. Downscaled climate projections and coastal hazard maps have been produced to inform risks and decision making.
Work continues to understand and monitor climate change impacts on key species and habitats including turtles, seagrasses and coral reefs.
The TSRA in collaboration with our partner organisations developed the Torres Strait Climate Change Strategy 2014-2018 which considers local climate change projections, likely impacts and actions aimed addressing knowledge gaps and addressing risks.
In December 2016 the Torres Strait Regional Adaptation and Resilience Plan 2016-2021 was released which assesses climate change risks in greater details for a number of key areas. The Plan identifies a number of actions to reduce climate risks. Climate change impacts are greater in vulnerable communities compared to communities that are better resourced and less vulnerable. It is for this reason this Plan focuses both on climate impacts as well as reducing vulnerability through building resilience. A Summary of the Plan was also developed.
Community climate change workshops have also been conducted across most outer island communities to develop local adaptation and resilience plans.
TSRA is also supporting TSIRC and TSC to secure funding to undertake detailed coastal hazard assessment to inform future planning for coastal communities in the region. A pilot coastal hazard assessment report was done for Horn island to undertake a cost benefit analysis of defend or retreat options in the face of expected sea level rise.
TSRA played a lead role in securing the information and funding to progress the construction of a new seawall for the low-lying island of Saibai. The project, co-founded by the Queensland and Australian Governments, will provide significant protection for the community from erosion and storm surge impacts. TSRA is working with local councils to progress more detailed assessment of coastal hazards to inform coastal adaptation responses.
A climate resilient communities pilot project will work with two communities to consider how to fast-track increased community resilience and sustainability to reduce their vulnerability to climate change impacts.
A community heat mapping project will monitor temperature and humidity levels across a community to help assess heat stress risks and to progress measures to reduce heat risk for communities.
TSRA is also actively seeking opportunities to reduce the region’s carbon footprint through the uptake of clean energy technologies. TSRA has installed 70kW of solar PV on its own facilities on Thursday Island.