Coastal Ecosystems Response to Climate Change

Synthesis and Integrative Research Program

Visit the publications page to view the synthesis report and factsheets


The National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) has commissioned the CERCCS Project as part of its Synthesis and Integrative Research programme.  This programme aims to deliver the information that is required by decision-makers to manage climate change risks in priority areas (see for more details).  The response of coastal ecosystems to climate change has emerged as such a priority area and the need for an ‘ecosystem review’ of climate change risks to Australia’s coasts has been identified by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (DCC 2009). The current project has therefore been commissioned to provide a synthesis of existing knowledge and experience to assess the implications of climate change for Australia’s coastal ecosystems in order to support policy and decision making to build ecosystem resilience and adaptive capacity.


The threat to Australia’s coastal assets posed by climate change, such as sea level rise, storm surge and increasing acidity have elevated coastal management issues on the national agenda. In the 2009 Climate Change Risks to Australia’s Coast publication (DCC 2009) an ‘Ecosystem Review’ was found to be one of a dozen key issues requiring further consideration as part of any national response to climate change and coastal management. The report noted that while coral reefs are widely recognised as being highly vulnerable (see Johnson et al. 2007, for example), “the risks to many other ecosystems are not well understood” and that “[t]here is a clear need to assess what is required to build the resilience of important ecosystems to climate change”. As a prerequisite to building resilience and supporting future coastal management and ecosystem conservation efforts, a more detailed understanding regarding the pressures, sensitivity, adaptive capacity and interaction within and between ecosystems and migratory boundaries under climate change is needed.

The report: Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: a focus on the Mid-Atlantic region (Titus et al. 2009) discusses how several key uncertainties need to be addressed in order to improve coastal ecosystem response modelling. Key uncertainties include rates of and limits to vertical accretion, and land use change effects (e.g. changing freshwater runoff and sediment supply regimes). The work packages below seek to further validate these and other uncertainties in order to lay the foundation for future research. This research will support policy and decision making to build ecosystem resilience and adaptive capacity.


Work Packages

The project will use the definition of ecosystems from Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change Assessment which considers ecosystems as a dynamic complex of plant, animal, human and micro-organism communities, and the non-living environment interacting as a functional unit.

The goal of this ‘modular project’ is to provide a synthesis of current knowledge and experience, drawing on Australian and international sources, to assess the implications of climate change for Australia’s coastal ecosystems. The project will define ‘priority’ ecosystems and species across Australia’s various coastal zones, based on their vulnerability, the imminence and magnitude of the risk etc.. It will consider how these priority ecosystems and species will respond to the impacts of climate change, within the parameters set by the underlying geomorpological characteristics and processes, and the potential for and types of adaptive response..

Four ‘work packages’ are proposed for this project.

Work Package 1: Impacts and Adaptive Capacity. A synthesis of existing literature, knowledge and experience to assess the adequacy of our understanding of ecosystem processes in response to climate change and associated geomorphological processes. The assessment will highlight gaps in our understanding and identify ‘priority’ ecosystems and species for further investigation. The report will detail what we do and do not know about the adaptive capacity of ecosystems (using the identified priority ecosystems (such as wetlands) as case studies) under specific climate and geomorphological conditions. This work would build on the work of Poloczanska (et al. 2009) and feed into Work Package 2 which explores specific ecosystem and species response to climate change.This Work Package will run a national workshop bringing together people with coasts, ecosystem/biodiversity and climate change impacts expertise as a mechanism to a) identify all the relevant sources of data, knowledge and expertise; and b) identify innovative approaches to develop the knowledge in each of the work packages. This national workshop should involve the researchers responsible for the other work packages.

Work Package 2: Adaptation Pathways. An assessment of what is known about the potential pathways for adaptation across the range of priority coastal ecosystems and species. The assessment would identify and describe known instances of succession and horizontal expansion (or loss) associated with vertical accretion due to changing conditions such as sea level rise, saline intrusion, shoreline recession and wave regimes, as well as ecosystem and/or species migration in response to sea surface temperature rise and acidity. The work would also draw together information on species interaction within these processes and work to identify the chemical and/or physical thresholds, or tipping points, of key ecosystems and species.

Work Package 3: Non-climate Anthropogenic Pressures. Analysis and synthesis of knowledge and information regarding non-climate anthropogenic pressures (urban expansion, alteration of geomorphologic processes, resource extraction etc.) in combination with geological barriers on coastal ecosystems around Australia (with consideration of the diverse settlement patterns and geomorphology around the coast). Based on this, the work package would consider whether coastal planning and development is integrating sufficient ‘buffer zones’, migratory corridors and restricted extraction zones, to allow for autonomous ecosystem adaptation to possible changes in sea level, climate and the marine environment. ‘At risk’ coastal ecosystems around Australia would be identified and options to build the resilience of these ecosystems would be explored. Such an analysis would draw on ‘lessons learned’ from around the world on coastal ecosystem management.

Work Package 4: Synthesis. A synthesis report which draws on the work of the preceding work- packages to assess the capacity of, and range of tools and information available to coastal managers and decision makers to account for climate change pressures on ecosystems and facilitate autonomous ecological adaptation. This work package should also involve a workshop (perhaps reconvening the first workshop participants) with the specific objective of collating and simultaneously assessing the key issues arising from previous work packages. The outputs from this work-package would include a succinct summary for policy makers.

Visit the publications page to view the synthesis report and factsheets