Staying ahead of the wave

A beautiful, sandy beach. Crystal clear waters. Fish. Thriving sand dunes.

Coastal communities often depend on these tourism drawcards. So, how can councils anticipate the damage done by increasingly frequent storms?

It’s a challenge close to the heart of the Noosa Shire Council, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Main Beach, Noosa, is a thriving resort location, with its rolling Pacific surf offset by the beauty of the surrounding Noosa National Park.

But Queensland is being battered by frequent cyclones and intense storms, and it’s only a matter of time before Noosa cops a direct hit.

Inevitably, its sandy beaches will bear the brunt of that force.

University of the Sunshine Coast geographer Associate Professor Javier Leon has taken up the challenge, finding ways to draw together field research, geospatial data and computer modelling into a simple and cost-effective coastal data portal for Australia’s coastal communities.

Noosa was Leon’s test case under a SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre grant designed to get the project off the ground.

“Throughout the life of the project, we’ve been working closely with Noosa Council – the people there wanting to know what’s happening with water quality, the state of coastal infrastructure and what parts of the beach and dunes will be prone to erosion this season,” he told Cosmos.

“There’s so much data out there. Drones can map the topography. And satellites can reveal what’s happening beneath the waves out to a depth of 10 metres. But what we’ve been doing is pulling it all together in a simple online interface so anyone at the council can look at it and even do their own analysis.”

The challenge, Leon says, is seamlessly linking changing global weather patterns with what’s being experienced at a local scale.

“You really need to understand that local level really well,” he says.

Traditionally, beach and dune surveys have been too sparse and limited to provide enough data for a “big picture” trend. At the same time, raw satellite and drone survey data can be both overwhelming and meaningless unless put in its proper context.

“The shorelines change so much, so fast,” Leon says. “And changing weather patterns mean what used to happen may not happen this year – or next.”

The COASTS system models observed wave movements from the sea all the way up an individual beach. This is mapped on a combination of satellite-derived bathymetry data for the nearshore areas and drone-derived topography maps of the beach and dunes.

“So we get this beautiful, seamless, very-high-resolution 3D model that we can run a beach erosion simulation on as an early warning for what is likely to happen when a storm hits,” Leon explains.

The Noosa pilot project ran until November last year.

Leon says the resort-region council had dodged the bullet of heavy storms up to that point. But it was still able to assess how its critical assets of sand and sea were changing, and model what damage was likely if one of those storms had hit.

The University of the Sunshine Coast is now working with district councils to refine the user interface of their online portal to offer beach health assessments to councils nationwide.

“The SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre is all about that academic, industry, and community relationships,” Leon says. “We’ve learnt end users don’t want every option put in front of them. What we academics want to see is not what they want necessarily. So we’re working on getting the backbone as detailed and accurate as possible – while funnelling it together in an intuitive and easy-to-digest form.”

The end product, COASTS 2.0, is expected to be ready for a national rollout later this year.

“Councils want to know the state of their beach as it is now, so they’ll be able to do that with just one tap,” Leon adds.

“A second tap will let them do a very simple before-and-after analysis with storms or over a period of time to see how things have changed. And the next level applies the erosion model so they can explore the impact of different scenarios – a 100-year or 10-year storm, for example – on the beach as it is now so they know who to warn and plan a response.”

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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