Limits to Adaptation project: Low-Lying Communities in the Torres Strait

View the project description and the final report or download a two-page summary of key findings

Lead organisation: James Cook University

Principal investigator: Assoc. Prof. Scott Smithers

Project summary

This project will define the limits to climate change adaptation in two low-lying Torres Strait Island communities, Sabai and Erub through literature review, interviews and focus groups. Sabai is a low mud island already inundated by the sea during high spring tides andstorm surges. It is the lowest-lying inhabited Torres Strait island and is thus likely to experience the impacts of climate change first. Erub is a volcanic ‘high’ island, but as is common, significant infrastructure, housing settlements, and cultural sites lie on the low coastal fringe. Erub will be investigated as the research team has excellent relationships with the community; experiences of climate change and traditional adaptation practices have been explored in an earlier project, on which this project can build and extend. By focusing on these two islands (and island types) the information gained will be relevant to many other low and high island communities in the Torres Strait, and elsewhere.

The project will integrate information on ecosystem response, cultural and social resilience, and technically and economically feasible adaptation strategies for these islands available in published literature, and primary data collected during the project. Data from complementary projects on island response by the research team will also inform the investigation. The aims are to ascertain what the likely impacts of climate change will be on the selected islands, which community members and activities will be most affected by these impacts, whether or not traditional or non-traditional adaptation strategies are likely to effectively mitigate these impacts, and ultimately to determine the limits to adaptation on these islands - when community assets and cultural activities may no longer be sustained. This project – with a team experienced in the Torres Strait - will integrate community views and knowledge, and published information critical for guiding environmentally and culturally appropriate adaptation responses.


Limits to adaptation are typically described as thresholds beyond which adaptation measures cease to reduce vulnerability. As outlined in the project brief, these limits can be identified in four domains: a) the ecosystem domain; b) the economic domain; c) the technological domain; and d) the social and cultural domain.The principal focus of the proposed project is to contribute to the understanding of the social and cultural limits to adaptation for small island communities in Torres Strait and elsewhere, elicited through interviews and focus groups with key stakeholders within the selected island communities. Engagement with traditional owners at all stages of the proposed research is a significant strength of this project, importantly bringing more Indigenous community voices to the climate change adaptation dialogue.

The perception of the impacts of climate change in these communities, positive and negative, and the expectations of adaptation strategy performances and consequences, may well be different between Sabai and Erub, and within different stakeholder groups on each island. They may also differ from the views of other communities – indigenous, non-indigenous, island or mainland. An important objective of this research is to identify these differences that will underpin when and where adaptation strategies should be considered, which strategies should be considered for implementation, and how these strategies should be evaluated once implemented.

This project has the following objectives on both the study islands:

To identify the probable ecosystem and infrastructure impacts of the prescribed climate change scenarios based on published literature, the technical expertise of the research team, and information yielded by a complementary project funded by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (DCCEE). Using visual resources depicting these impacts for each island, the community members most likely to be affected (such as those residing on the coastal fringe, or those reliant on coastal infrastructure such as piers and boat ramps to enable economic activity) will be identified initially through consultation with representatives sitting on the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) Coastal Management Committee, and interviews with the community leaders of Saibai and Erub. The groups  identified through these interactions will comprise the core members of focus groups for interview in each community, although it should be noted that additional groups would be added if it becomes apparent that this is appropriate. In addressing this objective the probable physical impacts to the islands and settlements will be identified, and the groups most affected by these impacts will be determined.

To explore through dialogue with a large number of community members and different community groups their ideas, views and experiences of present and projected climate change impacts (defined by objective 1, and more generally) and the merits of various adaptation strategies (such as strengths and limitations). Key foci in this objective will be to understand for each group when they believe adaptation strategies are necessary and under what conditions (when should they be implemented), what adaptation strategies should be used or considered (including traditional and non-traditional), what level of performance is expected from a given adaptation strategy and how this should be monitored, and when and why an adaptation strategy may no longer be considered effective in sustaining island settlements and cultural activities. In addressing this objective the project seeks to better understand and define the adaptation strategies that communities and community members in the Torres Strait consider are appropriate and in what physical and cultural contexts, and how and when particular adaptation strategies are effective or otherwise. Delivering on this objective will provide new and necessary information required to guide culturally-appropriate adaptation planning and responses for these communities.