Waterfront homes at Collaroy Beach in Sydney are on borrowed time. Image from University of New South Wales

A lot of people, we’re told, are “going bush”. They’re moving to the regions or other cities to avoid the impact of the pandemic. But what will the new place be like as climate change progresses? And is it any better or worse than where they’ve moved from? This extensive report brings the climate story right to our front doorsteps.

If there’s one thing heating up faster than Australia’s property market, it’s the global climate.

Since The Fifth Estate published our climate emergency property guide in October 2019, Australia has seen fires, floods and storms of record proportions. 

With the likelihood of disasters of this type increasing in frequency, we are again asking where will be the best places to live to help climate-proof your home and future. 

It’s worth noting that due to the nature of climate change, much depends on the topological location of specific properties. Meaning homes in the same state, suburb and even street can face vastly different risks from threats such as floods and bushfires. 

That being said, here are the things to keep in mind when buying property in the midst of a global climate disaster.  

Bushfires

CSIRO’s biennial State of the Climate report for 2020 stated that in the coming decades, the sunburnt country will get even hotter, experiencing increases in general air temperatures as well as more heat extremes.

The south and east of the country, covering Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, will see a continued decrease in rainfall during the cooler months, likely leading to longer periods of drought. 

Combined, these factors will lead to a greater number of dangerous fire weather days and a longer fire season.

Of course, these predictors already manifested in dramatic fashion, during the 2019-20 bushfires, which impacted widely, but most severely in the southeastern region of NSW and Victoria.

And there is a reason why communities affected by the bushfires are rapidly retooling with new gear and personnel — because once the bush grows back, it will burn again.

Around 3500 homes were lost in the 2019-20 bushfires, with over-stretched fire officials telling property owners at the time that even if a fire was at their door they could not expect a fire engine would be there to help. 

The below diagram from the Bureau of Meteorology shows which parts of the country have seen the largest increase in the number of “dangerous” fire days from the second half of last century to now. 

The bushfire risk of individual properties depends not just on region, but a range of factors including proximity to surrounding vegetation, the type of vegetation, and even whether the property is on a slope. 

Last year, Australia’s largest general insurer IAG, released a document identifying the five LGAs from each state considered most at risk from bushfires based on the total sum of premium at risk.

Source: IAG Bushfire Risk Factsheet

At the time, IAG Executive Manager Natural Perils Mark Leplastrier told Fairfax that NSW’s Blue Mountains would contend for the most at risk area in Australia due to many of the houses being located on ridge tops with dense bushland on both sides. 

“Bushfire risk is increasing across the country mainly due to higher temperatures coupled with lower humidity and higher evaporation rates. This is exacerbated by dry conditions and drought which create drier vegetation and therefore more fuel for fires to burn,” Leplastrier said. 

“Different parts of the country will start to see an increase in bushfire risk at different times, but the underlying trend is that all parts of Australia will see an increase in the future.”

Urban heat islands

With average temperatures set for a one to two degree increase this century, it’s worth factoring in the effects of urban heat islands, that will make the higher temperatures even more pronounced. 

If you’re looking to beat the heat, scope out somewhere with higher ratios of vegetation to hard surfaces like pavements, roads and buildings, which anyone who has walked barefoot across a car park will know, retain a lot of heat.

A 2017 report from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research identified the eight most vulnerable LGAs to heat island effects in Australia.

They were Melbourne’s Darebin and Hume, Perth’s Belmont, and Adelaide’s Charles Sturt, Playford, Port Adelaide Enfield and West Torrens.

A somewhat surprising member of the most vulnerable LGAs to heat island effects was the city of Ballarat in regional Victoria, showing that when it comes to a lack of vegetation, cities aren’t the only places at risk. 

While not rated among the very worst, vast swathes of Sydney’s west were also named and shamed, with Rockdale, Holroyd, Canterbury, Botany Bay and Blacktown scoring poorly.

Source: AdaptNSW

The report’s authors noted that Sydney’s urban sprawl showed “a phenomenon more akin to an urban heat continent than a spot or island.”

In Queensland, Logan, Ipswich and Toowoomba were the most vulnerable to heat stress while Tassie’s Launceston rated the worst down south.

The methodology for the rating took into account not just how hot the areas got compared to surrounding areas, but the health of the local population and how likely they were to be able to withstand the heat, as well as trends of decreasing vegetation and increasing hard surfaces. 

Floods

Earlier this year, floodwaters inundated large parts of the NSW mid-north coast as well as Sydney’s outer suburbs, impacting thousands of homes and causing widespread damage. 

According to the CSIRO, Australia’s rainfall is strongly influenced by drivers such as El Niño, La Niña, the Indian Ocean Dipole and the Southern Annular Mode, which create natural yearly variations.

While long term trends clearly point to an overall reduction in rainfall across the country, particularly on the southern edges, models also predict an increase in “short duration heavy rainfall events” which can lead to flooding events.

Again, insurer IAG has compiled a list of the Australian local government areas most at risk from flooding, noting that the average insurance claim following the 2019 Townsville floods was $80,000 dollars, necessary to cover the cost of stripping out wall linings and floors to properly clean properties.

Overall the report determined over one million private properties, or about one in 10 homes, have some level of flood risk in Australia.

The LGAs most at risk were all located in either Queensland or New South Wales, with those north of the border being Brisbane and Townsville, and those down south being the Central Coast, Clarence Valley, Hawkesbury, Kempsey, Lismore, Shoalhaven, Tweed and Wollongong.

While not considered “most at risk” LGAs listed across other states included Benalla, Bendigo and Maribyrnong in Victoria; Bunbury, Carnarvon and Swan in Western Australia; Devonport, Latrobe and Launceston in Tasmania; and Gawler, Murray Bridge and West Torrens in South Australia.

Many councils now provide overlay maps of areas most susceptible to flooding, with the impact to individual households differing greatly depending on topology, with those homes in lower lying areas being more at risk.

A decade on from Brisbane’s last major flooding event, the city has far from forgotten its impact, with City Council consistently promoting flood awareness alongside its interactive map. 

University of Queensland researcher, Dr Margaret Cook, author of A River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods, has repeatedly warned in recent years that the waters will rise again and the city needs to be better prepared. 

“As a community we need to think more about where we are building our houses, what parts of the riverside we are developing, and think more about using resilient design and better building products,” Dr. Cook told a 2019 seminar. 

“There’s a real disconnect of knowledge. There’s a big focus on reactive, not proactive behaviours and I think more needs to be done in regard to flood response. This is not a Brisbane story, it’s a story heard right around the world.”

Drought

If there’s one thing worse than too much water, it’s not having enough of it. 

While thankfully, a years-long drought across inland eastern Australia has since eased considerably, just last year, many towns and cities in the region came close to running out of water completely, and some of them did. 

The town of Stanthorpe in Queensland officially ran out of water in January 2020 and was forced to rely on truckloads of water brought in every day for residents to use. 

Using information from ABC reports, based on 27 February 2020, the CSIRO created a chart of how exposed towns were to “day zero”, the point where the taps run dry. 

See our 2019 article NSW considering evacuating up to 90 towns if they run out of water which outlines how close NSW came to making the toughest decisions.

Many regional councils are working hard to improve water security, however, those moving to drought prone areas should be aware of the risks of harsher water restrictions and the potential of running out altogether being a very real risk.

Sea level rise

It should be obvious by now that buying a waterfront property anywhere in the world is a huge risk. In our last report, we identified the highest risk areas for sea-level rise in Australia to be the Gold Coast, Cairns, Port Douglas, Melbourne’s Southbank, Byron Bay, Darwin and Newcastle.

Although even if we are sensible and move a little up the hill to build our perfect beach shack, what will be left of the beaches below to enjoy? 

Since our earlier report, we have witnessed some amazing examples of coastal erosion, most notably in Byron Bay where last December residents watched two of the area’s most popular beaches, Main and Clarkes, largely washed to the ocean and Narrabeen and Collaroy on Sydney’s northern beaches. 

The effects of coastal erosion are exacerbated not just by increasing storm weather, but higher sea levels in general, which CSIRO estimates could be between 0.61 and 1.10 metres by the end of the century. 

Going off the higher level estimate of 1.1 metre of sea level rise by 2100, a government assessment found between 157,000 and 247,600 residential buildings would be inundated across the country. 

Queensland and New South Wales had the most residential buildings exposed to inundation with between 44,000 and 68,000 residential buildings at risk in each state.

There are also significant numbers of buildings exposed in Victoria and South Australia (31,000–48,000 in each state), Western Australia (20,000–30,000), and last of all Tasmania (12,000–15,000).

Source: Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment report, Climate change risks to coastal buildings and infrastructure

Where should we run to? 

With the world heating up it makes sense to head south for cooler climates — which is why many are looking to the island state of Tasmania for sustainable buying. 

Many more are heading north in vast droves to places like Queensland, willing to cop the environmental impacts for a shot at a better lifestyle. 

By most of the above metrics Tasmania fares well, however it too will experience hotter and drier conditions and with its vast swathes of remote and pristine bushland, will likely experience more intense and devastating bushfires than ever before. 

It still poses a better prospect than many other parts of the country where cities will become urban heat continents, and drought-stricken regions will be plagued by bushfires and flash floods. 

Wherever you go, keep in mind that by the time your grandchildren are grown it will look vastly different. 

An online tool created by National Geographic, called Your Climate, Changed provided a picture of where the world might be headed by the year 2070. 

It predicted that in just 50 years, Melbourne would feel more like northern parts of Adelaide with much hotter summers, and Townsville would shift from a temperate climate zone to a tropical savannah. 

While that may sound not too bad, it predicted that the number of days over 35 degrees Celsius experienced in Townsville could increase from five in 2005, to 72 in 2080.

One of those who worked on the project was CSIRO principal research scientist and ecohydrologist, Dr Tim McVicar. 

He pointed out that while the tool gave a picture of the potential change to average temperatures, which in itself was concerning and posed serious health risks, it didn’t present the staggering impact of weather extremes we can expect to see the world over – wherever you choose to live.

At the time he said, “this year’s bushfire season in south eastern Australia is not the new normal, it will get worse by 2100.” 

“To avoid such a catastrophic future, individuals, communities, industries and governments need to band together to find workable solutions. We need leadership from all sectors.”

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