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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Impacts of Climate change on the NSW South Coast and Illawarra Regions

A new report by the Climate Commission says the Illawarra region and South Coast of New South Wales highlights the increasing risks of the impacts of climate change. These impacts include an increase in the likelihood of large and intense fires as temperatures increase, rising sea levels causing coastal flooding of buildings and infrastructure, changing rainfall patterns and more intense storms increasing the dangers of severe flooding, and impacts to the regional biodiversity.

Professor Will Steffen, Climate Commissioner and author of the report, said "The evidence for climate change is overwhelming and clear. This report shows that the NSW South Coast and the Illawarra region are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate."

The report accompanies the national report - The Critical Decade - which was presented to Prime Minister Gillard in May. Professor Steffen said, "the case for action has never been more urgent. We thought it was important to quantify some of those risks for the Illawarra and South Coast NSW, as well as other regions around Australia."

The report says that average temperatures in New South Wales have risen by 1˚C since the 1950s, with the number of high temperature extremes also increasing. This has lead to an increase in the Forest Fire Index by 10-40% in south east Australia for the period 2001-2007, which includes a 30% rise in the Nowra area. The number of extreme fire danger days in the Nowra area is projected to rise from about 1 per year to 2 to 4 per year by 2050. Intense fires are projected to increase by up to 20% as conditions which exacerbate bushfires - low humidity, high winds and high temperatures - become more common.

At particular risk from the increasing prevalence and intensity of bushfires are the Royal National Park and the forested escarpment behind Wollongong.

Sea level rise is projected to increase by 0.5 to 1 metre this century which will cause an increase in the frequency of coastal flooding and coastal erosion. The report says that hundreds of commercial buildings in Wollongong and Shoalhaven are threatened by a 1.1 metre sea-level rise, as well as 100-150 buildings in Shellharbour. About 50 km of rail is vulnerable to coastal flooding in the region.

The Illawarra and South Coast region has experienced a long term drying trend in it's climate which may create issues in the future with water availability. With a warming climate "A pattern of more severe droughts and more intense rainfall events would increase the risk of severe flooding when rain does occur, particularly in the low-lying areas of the region." the report says.

Biodiversity is also at risk in the Illawarra. The region is home to 69 threatened animal species, including the southern brown bandicoot and the green and golden bell frog, and 31 threatened plant species, including the Illawarra Zieria. Higher temperatures, more frequent and intense bushfires, and changing rainfall patterns will stress many vulnerable populations. Those that are known in a small geographical area will be particularly threatened. Coastal and lowland ecosystems will be impacted by rising sea level as saltwater intrusion increases.

Professor Steffen has emphasised that the time for action is now. "This is the critical decade," he said. "The decisions that we make in the next few years will determine the severity of climate change impacts our children and grandchildren suffer."

Professor Tim Flannery launched the report on the Illawarra / NSW south coast climate change impacts on July 25 at the Transforming Australia conference. "In terms of getting out in the Australian Community and developing a dialogue on all aspects of climate change, we think that is tremendously important. We don't comment on policy, either Government policy or opposition policy. We have done that quite deliberately because we think it worth trading some power for the authority to be taken as an independent and unbiased Commission and source of information." Flannery said at a press conference (youtube). "The challenge of climate change is not something that is going to be dealt with this year or next year or the year after. The Australian public will be debating and engaging with this issue for decades to come. The science tells us that. This is not a short term problem."

The Transforming Australia conference heard from a number of speakers on transforming the local region to more sustainable practices. The area from Kiama to Robertson has some of the strongest winds in the state with the Illawarra escarpment, Bowral and Moss Vale also having strong wind. Wollongong's manufacturing capacity could be utilised to building wind turbines.

The Climate Commission is conducting forums in Wollongong this week. A forum was held in the Wollongong Town Hall with Professor Will Steffen and Chief Climate Commissioner Professor Tim Flannery answering questions on climate change impacts. The Climate Commission is an independent body set up by the Gillard government in late 2010 to provide an authoritative source of information on climate change to the Australian people.

University of Wollongong journalism student Tamara Gasser caught up with Will Steffen after the Wollongong Town Hall forum for an interview, (see top of article) posted on Youtube


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