Our Coastline

Overview

 

Byron Shire’s coast is considered to be among the most picturesque and valued coastal areas in Australia.  The coastal zone is renowned for its biological diversity and natural beauty and supports the highest number of threatened species of conservation significance in New South Wales.  It is both a world-renowned tourist destination and an integral part of Byron Shire's urban landscape.

The coastline includes sandy beaches, rocky shores and headlands, rivers and creek entrances.  The iconic Cape Byron is a dominant feature of the coastline and is the eastern most point of mainland Australia with sweeping views to the north and south.

Our coastline extends from the Shire's northern border in the Billinudgel Nature Reserve to our southern border with Ballina Shire, and it is part of the broader regional beach system extending from the Clarence River to Moreton Bay in Queensland. 

Coastal Processes

Coastal processes are complex and dynamic. The geological history of the coastline and coastal processes including sea level fluctuations, weather and wave climate, winds, currents and sediment transport have all contributed to the present formation of our Shire's coastline. Our current dune system was created 8,000 years ago.

Due to Byron’s location, particularly the position of Cape Byron as Australia's most easterly point and our north facing beaches, the processes such as erosion and recession are occurring at a significant rate.

Belongil Beach has been designated by the NSW Government as a coastal erosion hot spot. This is where five or more houses and/or a public road are located in a current (or immediate) coastal hazard area, as identified in a coastal hazard study.

Coastal processes can impact on our use of the coast and development of coastal land and assets. Anthropogenic (human induced) climate change and forecast sea level rise are also an important consideration as we plan for our future.

Our wave climate is a generally persistent long period (10-12 second waves) of low to moderate energy swell from the south east. Wave climate is predicted to change to a more easterly direction and this may have implications for north/south facing beaches as sand moves and is depleted.

Our Stormy Past 

Our coastline has endured a long history of large coastal storms and coastal erosion.

Since the 1950s, there have been some 20 tropical cyclones and east coast lows that have had a significant impact on our coastline. The 1970s was an intense, stormy period that resulted in the rapid landward movement of the shoreline at key locations and the loss of several houses to coastal erosion.

In the northern part of the Shire, a small settlement of 17 houses called Sheltering Palms was badly damaged by storms in 1974 with the village being completely removed in 1977 under a Government buy back scheme. Subsequently an artificial dune was constructed by beach scraping.

After this intense stormy period a study was completed in 1978 by the Public Works Department - PWD, Hastings Point Erosion Study 1978(PDF, 21MB) which gained a detailed understanding of the coastal processes operating between Byron Bay and Hastings Point in the Tweed Shire.

Results of this study led the authors to conclude that the high coastal erosion rates were due to an “underlying long term erosional trend”, otherwise known as long-term shoreline recession. This trend was found to be a result of an underlying imbalance in the sediment budget (more sand leaving the area than returning) caused by “…both an offshore current loss and an unfavourable coastal alignment to the dominant wave condition” (PWD,1978).

Cape Byron, being the most easterly point of coastline also tends to act as a headland, limiting the movement of sand around the headland to the beaches of the Byron Bay Embayment (Wategos, Clarkes and Main Beach). The recession rate for the entire study area was found to be 0.6 metres per year but reaching 1.5 metres/year at Byron Bay and 2 metres/year at New Brighton.

In subsequent years, the scale of the long-term recession trend has been re-examined, predominantly by specialist consultants engaged by Council.  The high long-term recession rates observed during the 1960s and '70s are higher than those observed in more recent studies.  For example the Byron Shire Coastline Hazard Definition Study(PDF, 14MB) (WBM Oceanics, 2000) nominated an average recession rate for the Byron Bay Embayment of 1 metre/year; attributing the high PWD rates to the very stormy period preceding the PWD study.

A history of storms

A brief history of storms and coastal damage in the Byron Shire between 1888 and 2014 is provided below.

Year/period

Summary of event and the damage caused

1888

First Jetty built (402 m long) in Byron Bay.

1889 to 1896

Numerous shipwrecks in the area from easterly gales and storms.

1921

MV Wollongbar” wrecked off Byron Bay in an easterly gale.

1928

New jetty built (610 m long) due to damage to old jetty from heavy seas.

1933 to 1936

Period of severe and extensive beach erosion.

1948

New jetty damaged and six fishing boats lost.

1954

Cyclone, extensive and severe erosion, damage to new jetty, all 26 fishing boats lost.

1955 to 1956

Period of severe coastal erosion.

1972 to 1973

Severe coastal erosion, remains of jetty removed.

1974

February - Cyclone Pam caused extensive and severe coastal erosion and property loss including Sheltering Palms Village.

May/June – severe coastal erosion.

1984

Esplanade Road on Belongil Beach lost to the sea via erosion.

1996

Extensive erosion from East Coast Low.

1999

Extensive erosion from storms and a large swell event.

2001

Extensive erosion from an East Coast Low.

2009

May: Extensive erosion from an East Coast Low and following swell on king tides.

2013

Ex tropical cyclone Oswald marked the beginning of an erosion cycle sustained for a number of months by moderate easterly swell events / east coast lows on spring tides.

 

 

Stormy future?

As with any other coastline in the world, Byron's coastline is subject to natural physical processes such as coastal recession, erosion and accretion. The unique feature of Byron Bay's coastline is that, due to situational and geomorphologic factors, these natural processes are occurring at a significant rate.

An important consideration for managing our coastline is the predicted impacts associated with anthropogenic (human induced) climate change and forecast sea level rise. The best projections of sea level rise along the NSW coast, relative to 1990 sea levels, are 40cm by 2050 and 90cm by 2100 (formerly the NSW Sea Level Rise Policy Statement, Department of Environment and Climate Change, 2009).

There is also a lot that is not known regarding future waves heights (average and storm waves) and future wave directions due to climate change, with a range of possible conditions over the next century. For more information on climate change and adaptation refer to the National Climate Change Adaption Research Facility – CoastAdapt online tool. 

Managing the coastline into the future with the uncertain impacts of climate change and sea level rise is difficult. We can only base our assessments on the best knowledge available and attempt to adapt to a changing climate and coastline into the future.

For more information on the most recent assessment of coastal hazards for the developed parts of our coastline refer to the Byron Shire Coastline Hazard Assessment Update(PDF, 14MB) (BMT WBM, 2013).