Thousands of coastal NZ homes at risk amid 'baked in' climate change impacts

Source: 1News

It’s been an unlucky few days for Ewan Pohe — his Ōwhiro Bay property was the only one damaged by the recent dramatic swells in Wellington. 

It’s not the first time, either. He’s been calling for a sea wall for a while now. Last year, another storm resulted in $100,000 worth of damage to his house.

“I accept Tangaroa for what he is or what she is. I don’t mind the sea coming across the road,” Pohe told Breakfast. 

“What I do mind is the fact that we don’t have a sea wall in our particular part of the beach and there is a sea wall on all the rest of the South Coast. I’m just wondering why we don’t have one.”

It’s not so much he’s worried about the physical damage to his home — he has insurance — what he’s concerned about is the constant stress of not knowing. 

Pohe did acknowledge, though, that the new warning system installed after last year’s storms was “excellent”. 

“It’s not that hard, let’s just put a wall there.”

Further down the country, Martin Hill’s Granity home overlooks the Tasman Sea. After years of “many failed attempts” to mitigate damage from the sea, he and a few other residents took matters into their own hands. 

For residents in some areas of Aotearoa, insurance may not be available at all.

They created a concrete wall system to basically stop their town from washing away from coastal erosion and rising sea levels. 

“It’s absolutely fantastic. I don’t have sleepless nights anymore when there’s a big weather event now,” Hill said.

He hoped all coastal communities could have a similar system. Living on the West Coast, moving further up inland wasn’t really a choice. 

“We need everyone to all band together to start planning and making a path forward to fixing this. It’s no good saying 'retreat, retreat' and put your head in the sand.”

Pohe and Hill’s stories aren’t unique. An estimated 9000 New Zealand homes are located in areas less than 50cm above spring high tide levels. 

That’s going to be an issue in the next few decades, according to a new study published today in Nature Communications. 

The study estimates 267 million people, assuming zero population growth, live on land less than two metres above sea level worldwide. This means they are at a greater risk from coastal erosion, sea levels rising and frequent, severe storms. 

The paper suggests that by 2100, this number could increase to 410 million people. 

Climate scientist Tim Naish said even if the world met its Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to under 2°C, the sea will rise by at least 50cm by 2100. 

“We can’t stop that train, even if we bring our emissions to zero, we’ve baked in a certain level of sea level rise,” Naish told Breakfast. 

He said the lower North Island was subsiding at a rate of about 4mm a year. At the same time, sea levels were rising 3mm annually. 

“I think the conversation needs to turn to adapting and preparing for that climate change, particularly sea level rise that we can’t avoid,” he said. 

People also tended to underestimate the impacts of climate change, Naish said. 

He said New Zealand could expect to see more storms and wild weather. For example, he said the storm in Wellington this week could become an annual event if sea levels rise 30cm. 

That meant people needed to take personal action to make their lives greener. 

“We can all do our bit, but leaders need to lead as well.”