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Goodbye, Sand: An Eroding Coast

Posted on July 13, 2022

That was when the swell drought of 2019 finally broke. The actual drought broke in late February that year. The east coast was drenched out of almost nowhere by a thunderstorm-laden rain bomb which delivered almost all of Sydney’s annual average in less than a week. The dams went from below 50% to full, boom.

The drenching released toxic bushfire water from the rivers of central and southern NSW, killing billions of shellfish on the coast’s numerous rock platforms. When the May swell came, it rose eight feet in two hours and blew all the dead shells off the rocks, and every shorebreak was suddenly filled with sharp little foot-chompers.

That’s part of how sand is made along this coast. Now, after two and a bit years of regular smashings from surf in the eight to 15 foot range, those dead shells are long gone, and the coast needs sand more than ever.

The last day or two, you didn’t need to wander far to see the effects. At my beach, Newport on Sydney’s northside, the sand load had been scraped off again by last week’s hectic easterly wind and swell bombardment. Then came Sunday’s long-range, long interval power, along with a perfectly timed late arvo major high tide. It encountered little resistance from what’s left of the foredune at the south end of the beach.

This is pretty exy real estate, but that’s not the ocean’s business. It didn’t quite do what it’d done back in the much vaunted mega-storm of May 1974 (see images), but it gave it the old college try.

A coupla handfuls of people were gathered on a pathway leading down to the now nonexistent beach, watching as bits and pieces of those expensive front yards slid slowly into the sea. Topsoil and turf was falling away like icing off a badly cut cake.

It’d be easy to gloat, but these are actual humans. Kevin Hardwick lives a block back from the foredune with his wife Annette. Older readers will remember Kevin as the Tigers’ hard man of the 1980s. Now he’s a humble electrician who’s done well for himself. “Once they’re gone, I’m gone,” said Kevin, referring to his front neighbour. “I’m lower down.” This tis the risk of foredune building — once the first line of defence is gone, the rest can happen fairly quickly.

As we stood there chatting, surf beat took down the stairs to the non-beach. These had washed away quite recently and been replaced by solid block concrete steps, framed by heavy marine ply on either side and held from the rear by a wacky looking system of chains and walkway planks. A set hit, took a last crucial bite of sand away, and the whole lurched and slid half a metre down toward the ocean. Another set came and blasted over the front section of steps, and it all sagged again.

This scene was being repeated up and down the coast. At North Cronulla, all the old pre-2000s revetment rock walls were exposed, and the lifeguard tower was suddenly at risk of toppling. Cronulla was also hammered by the ’74 storm. Seawalls along the stretch have been repeatedly destroyed by heavy wave action. Beach nourishment has been tried, and found wanting each time — the sand hangs around until another La Niña season, and eventually just heads north up the beach, or back out to sea.

And La Niña is what ties this stuff together. The mega-erosion events of 1974 were right in the middle of a triple dip La Niña event, one of just two properly studied such events in recent Australian history. Double dip La Niñas were behind the epic surf we’ve regularly experienced along the Aussie east coast since May 2020’s shell-buster. I bet more of us have ridden great waves of every conceivable shape and size in that time than ever before in surfing’s own short history. Given the pandemic, it couldn’t have happened at a better time.

But that sand isn’t coming back soon, and another La Niña may well be peeping her cheeky little head around spring’s door-frame, preparing to pop on her mad dancing shoes and send us all surf mad again.

Just remember: when it pumps, other stuff is happening too.



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