Rising Sea Levels Put New Zealand’s Capital At Risk

New Zealand’s capital city is surrounded by sea. According to its regional council, Wellington’s sea level rise has occurred at a rate of 2.2mm per year since the 1990’s. Any increase in the sea level rise along the coast will have severe consequences for our outdated resources, creating significant and far-reaching effects on the lives of those in and around Wellington.

Three projected scenarios of potential sea level rise have been posited for the year 2100: a rise of .4m, a rise of 1.2m, and a rise of 2.4m. Each of these scenarios will require a different level of adaptive planning. If we start to plan for what we can do about these scenarios now, we can mitigate some of the long-term damage Wellington will see from the rise.

Wellington’s aging infrastructure is at particular risk from the rising sea levels. Thousands of people in the city’s eastern suburbs currently rely on highways which are either currently eroding or are likely to be engulfed if the waters rise at their expected rate. Wellington’s local economy relies on travel; the city’s public sector, events, and hospitality industries all depend on people who traffic through Wellington Airport, which is low-lying and already close to sea areas. We need to plan adaptively to prevent Wellington’s economy from collapsing if Wellington Airport is lost.

In addition to Wellington Airport, rising sea level will also significantly impact Weta Workshops and countless manufacturing plants essential in supporting thousands of jobs, and therefore thousands of families, in the city. Protecting the eastern suburbs will require long-term planning, as will the Wellington waterfront. The coast is home to places like TSB Arena, the Tākina Wellington Convention Centre, the Michael Fowler Centre, and the national Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which draw in many visitors and contribute significant revenue to the region.

A conservative estimate suggests that 0.4 billion NZD in assets would be severely impacted if sea levels rise 0.6m by the year 2100. “150 residents would be displaced,” environmental and engineering consultancy Tonkin & Taylor estimates, particularly in the low-lying coastal areas. A more severe 1.5m rise could affect 6.5 billion in assets. More directly, “2,000 residents are likely to be displaced under an estimation of 1.5m sea level rise,” Tonkin & Taylor says. Wellington lacks places to build more housing developments. The rising sea has dire consequences for residents’ access to housing and resources.

Rising sea levels also increase the likelihood and severity of severe weather events like floods and tsunamis, worsening their impacts on the city. Wellington already suffers from frequent and severe earthquakes, making tsunamis unfortunately probable. As sea levels rise, Wellington’s flood maps and potential tsunami risk locations will need to be updated in order to keep its people safe. People will have to avoid dangerous areas and may be forced to retreat entirely if the risk is severe.

Communities are entrenched in Wellington, especially in the coastal areas threatened most by rising sea levels, which many have called home for generations. Most are reluctant to leave. Generation Z is known to exhibit signs of physiological and/or psychological distress when thinking about the impact of climate change, which, brought by these severe external circumstances, will be passed down to the next generation. This climate anxiety will affect how people conduct their everyday lives in the year 2100. The Wellington City and Greater Wellington Regional Councils must put a focus on early mitigation to lessen the trauma sustained as a result of climate change, and to keep rising sea levels from preventing their constituents from living normal, healthy lives.

For example, the Wellington City Council is currently planning on building a housing development in the low-lying, coastal suburb of Shelly Bay. An adaptive plan for the sea level rise in the area, if development goes ahead, could be to erect a protective sea wall along the development’s border. This would ensure the safety of those living in the development as waters rise, minimizing the impact on area residents. Furthermore, this method helps create long-lasting sustainability in the region, allowing businesses to continue operating in this area.

Adaptive planning is the best way to mitigate the threat of rising sea levels. A wide range of adaptive planning is important to protect the people of Wellington, from installing sea walls to divert rising waters away from communities like Shelly Bay to making necessary changes in lifestyle to adapt to the realities of climate change and retreating from the areas that are most at risk from sea level rise. Rising sea levels’ impacts on the Greater Wellington Region are far-reaching and it is impossible to accurately predict how intense their results might be. However, regardless of how much sea levels increase in the next 80 years, life in Wellington will have to change along with the environment.

Sophie Simons
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