Littoral feast or famine
Right now, Australia has its own version of severe inequality playing out in front of our eyes.
Yet it's not income inequality or anything to do with class or privilege that's determining our fortunes. It's sand inequality.
You see, every sand-bottomed pointbreak on the north coast of NSW and south-east QLD has not only an abundance of sand but in most instances it's impeccably formed too. If locals aren't calling the sand the best ever then they're marginally qualifying it as the best in ten years, best in twenty years etc etc.
Swellnet recently ran an article on the surfeit of sand at The Pass, while surf camera and video footage shows Rainbow Bay is similarly stacked, then there's the reports of a beach below the rock line at Crescent Head, not to mention the many other pointbreaks that discretion prevents me from mentioning online.
It's no coincidence that when the sand stacks up on one point, it stacks up on the others too, as they're all influenced by the same set of coastal processes and climate drivers. A real time example of interconnectedness.
The sand on the far north coast has been fed by a return to average rainfall over the last three months - something not seen since 2017 - that's increased the sediment load from river run-off and ultimately finds its way onto the beaches.
Crucially, however, the sand isn't being distributed equally along the coast. In general, the surplus sand is sitting on the lee side of points while the wider expanses of beach, particularly the southern ends, have been buffetted by an above-average winter of waves with many swells coming from the eastern quadrant.
The contrasting fortunes is most keenly observed at Byron Bay where the sand at the aforementioned Pass is waxing ever outwards, while just half a kilometre south at Clarkes Beach a cafe is metres from falling into the sea.
After this week's swell, Beaches cafe and restaurant is now five metres from the slump zone with Phil Holloway from Byron Shire Council telling the ABC: "If it's not attended to, without the replenishment of sand or some other intervention, obviously there will be issues with the cafe."
According to longtime local Mark 'Mono' Stewart at least part of the problem at Clarkes owes itself to rainwater runoff. Though the recent cluster of Tasman Lows bringing an extended period of large surf and high rainfall have accelerated the problem at Clarkes.
Other places not reaping the sand windfall are Stockton where Newcastle City Council sandbagged parts of the beach following storms earlier this year. The reinforcements, which were placed adjacent to the cafe and caravan park, held during last week's barrage, however the exposed beach to the south lost two more metres of sand. Newcastle City Council has developed a coastal management plan for the erosion at Stockton - it was written in 2009 and eleven years later is yet to be acted upon.
Most newsworthy was the recent erosion at Wamberal on the Central Coast. In mid-July, the combination of a large south-east swell and high tide caused severe erosion, resulting in the partial collapse of two houses and the forced evacuation of thirty more. All the damage is on Ocean View Drive where a number of houses collapsed following similar conditions back in 1978.
Solutions have been investigated but to date the burden of cost and negative side effects have stalled progress. One of those solutions is the construction of a seawall which, if it were built, would spare the houses behind it but almost certainly stop sand from accreting in front of it. In short: there'd be no beach.
Many East Coast beaches were eroded during the recent storm cluster, not all of which made the news. At McCauleys Beach, just north of Wollongong, the waves eroded back to brown earth at the south end, while the north end was stripped of sand. Above the beach, a real estate agent optimistically advertises the sale of a waterfront house and the vacant lot next door. The vacant block was once a tennis court at street level but the land now slumps down to the tide line.
For surfers, our knowledge of sand usually starts and stops with wave quality. Are the banks good or not? But sand serves a far more valuable service as it protects the coast during storms. Between swells, sand builds up on the beach and foredune, only for it to be taken during periods of high wave energy. The sand is transported to sea where it acts as a barrier, a 'storm bar', mitigating wave energy before it hits the coast. Then, when the swell subsides, it again accretes on the beach and the cycle continues.
The cycle can be interrupted in two ways. The first is when hard structures are built on the foredune, either locking the sand away or interrupting its movement to the wave zone and back. Wamberal is a classic example of this.
The second way the cycle can be interrupted is when the storm frequency increases and sand hasn't had a chance to return to shore. When that happens any subsequent storm will be attacking the coast without its natural defences in place. Examples of this are the storm clusters of May and June 1974, and June 2007. Craig has written an article on clusters here.
Many locations on the East Coast currently have their defences removed, which makes them vulnerable in the coming weeks. At present, another Tasman Low is forecast to impact the coast next Monday. With its strength and location yet to be determined, residents of many coastal properties will be nervously watching the wave models.
Meanwhile, surfers on the north coast pointbreaks, the beneficiaries of the current sand inequality, will also be watching the storm and hoping for an altogether different forecast.