In the shallows at Byron Bay, a man wanders the beach with a metal detector looking for once-buried treasure.
A few days since the ocean carved away most of the white sand, the shoreline bears a handful of markers that show the scale of the storm’s erosion damage.
There is a disability access ramp for wheelchair users that used to slope gently on to the sand. It now hangs more than 3 metres above the beach – like a scenic lookout.
“The front dune has receded 20 metres in some places,” says Veda Turner, a member of a local dune landcare group, the Green and Clean Awareness Team, since it was founded in 1997.
“I’ve been involved since then and this is certainly the worst we’ve seen,” Turner says.
“A lot of people who’ve lived in Byron longer than that have said the same thing.
“Back in 1999 there were cyclones in the Solomon Islands and they sent swells into the bay and the dunes were pretty badly affected. In the last two or three months we’ve certainly gone past the conditions that prevailed then.”
Byron Bay was once a sleepy seaside town, a haven for surfers and hippies. Now it’s a playground for Hollywood celebrities and scores of holidaymakers. The single-lane road into town is usually a permanent traffic snarl at this time of year.
The main attraction has always been the idyllic beachfront north of Cape Byron, the easternmost point on mainland Australia.
For at least a year, two beaches at Byron – Main and Clarkes – have been stripped of sand as currents change, causing a buildup of sand near the cape, which is in turn blocking the natural migration of sand through the bay.
The slow erosion left the beach defenceless last week as large waves and storm surges stripped huge amounts of sand.
A national issue
Dick Persson, the new administrator of the Central Coast council, north of Sydney, saw reports about erosion at Byron Bay on the 5pm television news bulletin on Tuesday.
That night he wrote to the prime minister, Scott Morrison, calling for a national approach to dealing with the effects of worsening storms on the coastline.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing at Byron Bay,” Persson says.
“So I teed off. It wasn’t a planned intervention. It was totally presumptuous for a council administrator to call on the PM to do anything. But leadership requires someone to have a vision for something.”
After a long career in the public service, which included running several NSW government departments, Persson has dealt with serious erosion problems first-hand as the administrator at a number of coastal councils.
He brought in planning restrictions – to the chagrin of residents – at Collaroy on Sydney’s northern beaches while the administrator of Warringah council in 2003.
More than a decade later, Persson was appointed administrator of the new Northern Beaches Council. He’d been in the job barely a month when storms caused serious damage at Collaroy, including washing an oceanfront swimming pool into the sea.
Now on the Central Coast, Persson leads a council responsible for worsening coastal erosion at Wamberal.
“These [storm] events are clearly happening more often and more aggressively,” he says. “The intensity of the storms is clearly bigger than it used to be.”
Solutions like seawalls are unpopular with locals in coastal areas. Persson says sand nourishment – pumping large amounts of sand on to beaches from offshore deposits – is an obvious solution, but that it requires resources beyond local council.
“I’m hoping the prime minister can get this matter elevated to the new national cabinet to ensure a national approach before many beaches are lost forever.”
Heads in the sand
The situation at Byron has been made worse by longer-term erosion which slowly stripped sand from the beach.
“Because of that there’s no sand there to protect the beach when you get a storm like this,” says Tom Murray, a research fellow at Griffith University’s centre for coastal management.
“There’s no buffer there and you’ve got big high tides, a relatively large storm surge and these big waves coinciding,” he says. “It looks pretty bad and the community is saying it’s the worst [erosion] in a generation.”
Murray co-wrote a piece for the Conversation last month that explained how long-term erosion at Byron’s Main beach was largely caused by changes to a natural process called “headland bypassing”.
Typically, sand migrates around a headland from one beach to the next. In this case a “sand slug” has built up on the northern side of Cape Byron and is blocking the sand’s natural movement.
“We are expecting the erosion to get a little bit worse before it gets better,” Murray says.
“We do expect the event to be relatively shortlived, but as we’re going into a La Nina, we’re expecting an energetic summer. Beach recovery is all about time between energetic storm events.”
The local Byron shire council says visual estimates show about 2 metres of sand have been lost along the length of the beach.
“Clarkes and Main beaches are the primary impact/damaged areas in the Byron shire and further erosion is likely to occur over time due to slumping and slippage of vegetation and readjustment of the escarpment over time,” the council says.
“These beaches will continue to be extremely vulnerable until a suitable quantity of sand moves into the location.”
Turner, who went down to the beach on Wednesday, says in some places it looks like the estimate of 2 metres of sand being washed away was “an underestimate”. The volunteer dune landcare group, which typically plants vegetation to help improve the dune’s resilience, will have a more detailed look around on Saturday.
“I don’t think we’ll be doing any planting this weekend – we’ll be holding our heads a bit,” Turner says.
“Our defence has gone. There’s a fair bit before vital infrastructure is at risk. At the moment sandbags are all that’s stopping the beach cafe from winding up on the beach.
“The bigger picture is that unless we can take some serious action on climate change, things are just going to become more extreme.
“We’ve had erosion events before and this is a pretty aggressive one and we can rely on that happening again unless we take some action.
“Heads in the sand in certainly not the way to go.”