Improving Australian coastal management, hazard and risk assessment

Fields of Research

  • 04 – Earth sciences
  • 05 – Environmental sciences

Socio-Economic Objectives

  • 96 - Environment


  • Climate change
  • Coastlines
  • Sediment compartments
  • Coastal systems
  • Coastal management
  • Risk assessment

UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • 11 - Sustainable cities and communities
  • 13 - Climate action
  • 15 - Life on land


Impact Summary

UOW Professor Woodroffe and his team’s research on coastal vulnerability has been instrumental in establishing a national sediment compartment approach, enabling better forecasts of Australian coastline response to sea-level rise. It has been adopted nationally by stakeholders using the CoastAdapt tool, incorporated in state legislation (NSW Coastal Management Act, 2016), and used to undertake probabilistic shoreline risk assessments at local government level. The sediment compartment approach provides a framework on which to base state-wide mapping, monitoring and modelling programs along the New South Wales coast.

Related United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:

11. Sustainable cities and communities
13. Climate action
15. Life on land

Read details of the impact in full

Details of the Impact

Australian coasts are threatened by erosion and inundation, and risks to ecosystems and infrastructure are exacerbated by sea-level rise. Understanding the natural behaviour of coastal landforms is critical for managing their vulnerability, developing adaptation strategies, and avoiding unnecessary future risks. Professor Colin Woodroffe and his team’s research on sediment compartments was adopted at the federal, state and local levels of government to incorporate the past and future behaviour of inter-connected sections of shoreline into coastal management responses.

All three levels of government in Australia are now committed to a nationally agreed method of assessing coastal hazards and climate change impacts. Woodroffe’s research was the first to enable a geomorphic approach to tackle these issues. This approach used local and regional geomorphology to characterise distinctive sections of coast and associated sand availability and transport, thereby providing more accurate assessments to enable realistic and sustainable coastal management.

Woodroffe and others (particularly Professor Bruce Thom, Honorary UOW Professorial Fellow) proposed and developed a national coastal sediment compartment framework which was adopted by the Department of Climate Change (DCC) and Geoscience Australia (GA) (2012–13). Through a coordinated effort between UOW, DCC and GA, the entire Australian coast was classified into provinces, regions, primary and secondary compartments.

Additional information on the principal coastal processes and sediment transport pathways was compiled for each compartment, together with an assessment of their sensitivity to climate change, particularly sea-level rise. This was incorporated into the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility’s (NCCARF) online management support tool ‘CoastAdapt’. The data sit within the Shoreline Explorer, an online data repository, and show compartment boundaries and provide information on the location, nature, volume and transport of coastal sediments to a range of coastal management stakeholders allowing more informed coastal planning decisions.

New South Wales incorporated the compartment concept into legislation (Coastal Management Act, 2016, with 47 NSW secondary compartments listed by name) and the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) commenced offshore surveys using the compartment approach as a framework to assist local councils in the development of new Coastal Management Programs.

As part of the NSW Coastal Reforms Package – which precipitated a new approach, informed by Woodroffe’s research – the NSW government invested $5 million to map all secondary coastal compartments via boat-based and aerial survey. This corresponds to an area of approximately 10,000 km2 along 2137 km of state shoreline. Woodroffe and his team are collaborating with OEH in investigating the Illawarra compartments, which were adopted as a pilot area.

Woodroffe and his team implemented the sediment compartments approach at a regional scale right down to the individual beach scale. This involved many (>20) student projects, including PhDs, Honours and final-year projects in the Bachelor of Environmental Science degree program. These examined the changing nature of beach and foredune systems in the Illawarra and Sydney in collaboration with the Office of Environment and Heritage, and/or local councils.

The compartment approach directly enabled these outcomes – which included a better understanding of beach behaviour in response to storms, recommendations on the value of vegetation for beach dune stability, a digital map archive of the historic behaviour of the Illawarra’s sand dunes, and precise estimates of the age and evolution of key coastal features in the Illawarra (e.g. the Shoalhaven Banks). Short-term monitoring of the effects of beach and dune vegetation engineering at Woonona Beach led Wollongong City Council to publish a journal paper with advice from Woodroffe, who served on the WCC Estuary and Coastal Zone Management Committee (2012–17).

In relation to this, Andrew Carfield, Director of Planning and Environment at Wollongong City Council said: “Professor Colin Woodroffe’s expertise in the study of coastal compartments has been invaluable to Wollongong City Council’s coastal management program. He has contributed as an independent scientific advisor to the development of Council’s Coastal Zone Management Plan, which has now been certified and gazetted by the NSW Government. Council is keen to continue this beneficial partnership with Professor Woodroffe.”

Woodroffe’s research contributed sediment compartment data relevant to dune management, which is a concern for many local councils. Such organisations face strong opinions from local residents, surf clubs and surfing communities on the issue of ‘preservation versus view-improvement’ in relation to dunes. Woodroffe and his team’s research informed local councils as to the effectiveness of various soft-engineering approaches adopted on beaches in response to community pressure.

As part of NCCARF, Woodroffe coordinated University of Sydney, University of Queensland and Dutch researchers to pioneer a probabilistic approach that incorporated the considerable uncertainty inherent in shoreline behaviour. A resulting model was developed to assess the risks of climate-change impacts on one of the most at-risk beaches in NSW (Narrabeen Beach, Sydney). This mapped potential future shoreline positions and assigned each line a probability. As a result, coastal management stakeholders (e.g. councils) are now able to make planning decisions based on evidence-based risk assessments. A major benefit of this project was greater awareness for councils of the scientific uncertainty associated with predicted coastal changes; this approach was subsequently adopted by the University of Canberra and applied to the South Coast of NSW and Gippsland, Victoria.


  • Commonwealth Department of Environment and Energy
  • NSW Office of Environment and Heritage
  • Geoscience Australia
  • National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility
  • Wollongong City Council
  • Shoalhaven City Council
  • Bega Valley Shire Council
  • Kiama Municipal Council
  • Shellharbour City Council
  • Southern Councils Group (now Illawarra Pilot Joint Organisation)


Impacted Countries
  • Australia

Approach to Impact

Summary of the approaches to impact

Our approach to impact recognises the benefits of generating close relationships with our key beneficiaries and supporting researchers at all career stages to facilitate long-term impact. We accomplish this through challenge-focussed research strengths and centres, institutional funding for high-impact cross-disciplinary research (UOW Global Challenges), co-funding of end-user driven research, advancement grants for early- to mid-career researchers, and guaranteed industry engagement through our Bachelor of Environmental Science Honours degree that incorporates work-integrated learning.

Read the full approach to impact

Approach to Impact

Research in Earth Sciences at the University of Wollongong (UOW) is supported at the University, Faculty, Research Strength and School levels. Across two schools (Chemistry, and Earth and Environmental Sciences) our research includes the university-recognised research strength, GeoQuest and the faculty-recognised Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry.

Our approach to impact aims to deliver our research findings directly to the stakeholders responsible for managing and protecting our natural resources. We do this with support from our university Research Strengths and Centres, impact-oriented institutional funding (UOW Global Challenges), faculty co-funding of engaged research and a long-running, work-integrated learning (WIL) honours program, seen as best practice nationally. Examples of projects supported under this program include:

– A collaboration with Geoscience Australia to map newly discovered relict reefs around Lord Howe Island and Balls Pyramid, leading to joint publications and external funding for further research aboard the RV Southern Surveyor (2014);

– Engagement with state organisations (e.g. NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service) to assist with state-level beach vulnerability risk assessment and coastal compartment mapping and interpretation;

– Work with local organisations such as Surf Life Saving Australia to map risk of death on rock platforms.

GeoQuest supports research excellence undertaken by an interdisciplinary team of academics with a shared focus on environmental and climate change research under the theme “Earth System Science and Technology”. In addition, research at the Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry is focussed on atmospheric trace-gas atmosphere/biosphere exchange, aerosol chemistry and long term changes in atmospheric composition – from the laboratory to the field, and at local-to-global scales.

Our translational research is supported institutionally via our UOW Global Challenges Program, a university-wide initiative that supports cross-faculty interdisciplinary work, and has “Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones” as one of three identified focal challenges around which the program has been structured.

Global Challenges awarded a strategic grant to Coastal Research to Underpin Sustainable Management, South Coast, NSW (CRUSM, funded 2013 and 2014). This enabled Professor Woodroffe’s research group to have a strong presence at the NSW Coastal Conference (NSW CC), an important coastal research communication forum in which coastal managers are heavily involved. Both oral and poster presentations were delivered at the conference and written papers led by student researchers were also published on the NSW CC webpage.

This strategic grant also assisted with the implementation of a memorandum of understanding in 2013 between UOW and the Southern Councils Group (now Illawarra Pilot Joint Organisation, IPJO, and incorporating Wollongong, Shellharbour, Kiama, Shoalhaven and Bega Valley councils) in recognition by local government of the value of UOW research on many coastal management issues and potential adaptation challenges. This expedited the commencement of many Honours and Environmental Science Research projects since 2014.

Our research office in the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health (SMAH) runs funding schemes to support moderate-scale but emerging research projects. The SMAH research partnership scheme is designed to support collaborations with industry partners, who also provide cash/in-kind support. Professor Woodroffe was awarded a partnership grant to work alongside the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) on “Sediment dynamics and stability of the Illawarra coast” ($12,889), with OEH providing in-kind support by conducting multi-beam surveys within the shallow marine environments offshore from the Shoalhaven and Five Islands Nature Reserves in 2016. This led to the submission of a Linkage application with the Office of Environment and Heritage (2017).

SMAH further funded Professor Woodroffe through an Advancement Grant, which encourages and supports partnerships between early- to mid-career (EMCR) and prominent established researchers to advance the EMCR’s profile and further the established researcher’s work in current or new directions. Jointly awarded with Dr Sarah Hamylton in 2016, this grant, entitled: “Determining the vulnerability of reef islands to environmental change” enabled a research partnership to be developed with Parks Australia to apply the shoreline sediment compartment framework to Cocos (Keeling) atoll ($14,000). This project revealed local variability in shoreline changes around Pulu Keeling island, indicating the need for diverse management responses to shoreline erosion, and expansion around different parts of the island. In 2015, this informed the re-drafting of the Pulu Keeling island management plan to reflect a more dynamic approach.

For over two decades our Bachelor of Environmental Science (Hons) has run industry placements for fourth-year students. This UOW program, now often termed work-integrated learning (WIL), was showcased by the Australian Office of the Chief Scientist in 2015 as an exemplary program for integration of student learning with impactful research.

Each year, we make contact with state and local governments (e.g. NSW OEH and Wollongong City Council) to develop fourth-year projects on coastal dynamics in conjunction with Professor Woodroffe. This has resulted in eight projects, each of which have had in-kind and/or cash contributions to the research. This approach specifically partners local/regional industry with high-impact researchers such as Woodroffe, whilst also promoting industry experience for undergraduate students, who get exposure to high-value applied research.

Associated Research

Much of the research described at the state, national and local scales in Part A was carried out in the period 2012–2015, although several follow-on initiatives are ongoing. A UOW coastal vulnerability group formed after Professor Woodroffe led the chapter on ‘Coastal systems and low-lying areas’ on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 4th Assessment Report, for which the IPCC was jointly awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Subsequent reports have synthesised vulnerability, impacts and adaptation options internationally and in Australia, such as:
– A review of international vulnerability assessments and their applicability to Australia (2006; 2015);
– A study emphasising Australia’s variable coastline and summarising assessment strategies (2014);
– National reports to the Standing Committee on Environment to the House of Representatives (2009) and the Department of Climate Change (DCC, 2009); and
– A book ‘The Coast of Australia’ describing different Australian coastal regions (2009).


1. Woodroffe, C.D., Cowell, P.J., Callaghan, D.P., Ranasinghe, R., Jongejan R., Wainwright, D.J., Rogers, K. and Dougherty, A.J., (2012) Approaches to risk assessment on Australian coasts: A model framework for assessing risk and adaptation to climate change, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility ISBN 978-1-921609-70-1, 203 pp.

2. Nicholls R.J., Wong P.P., Burkett V.R., Hay J.E., McLean R.F., Ragoonaden, S. and Woodroffe, C.D. (2007) Coastal systems and low-lying areas. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Parry M.L. et al. Eds., Cambridge University Press, UK, 315–356.

3. Harvey, N. and Woodroffe, C.D., (2008) Australian approaches to coastal vulnerability assessment. Sustainability Science, 3, 67–87, doi 10.1007/s11625-008-0041-5.

4. Abuodha, P.A. and Woodroffe, C.D. (2010) Assessing vulnerability to sea-level rise using a coastal sensitivity index: a case study from southeast Australia. Journal of Coastal Conservation Planning and Management, 14, 189–205, doi 10.1007/s11852-010-0097-0.

5. Wainwright, D.J., Ranasinghe, R., Callaghan, D.P., Woodroffe, C.D., Cowell, P.J. and Rogers, K., (2014) An argument for probabilistic coastal hazard assessment: retrospective examination of practice in New South Wales, Australia. Ocean & Coastal Management, 95, 147–155.

6. Woodroffe, C.D., Callaghan, D., Cowell, P.J., Wainwright, D., Rogers, K. and Ranasinghe, R., (2014) A framework for modelling the risks of climate-change impacts on Australian coasts, in Palutikof, J., Boulter, S., Barnett, J. and Rissik, D. (eds.) Applied Studies in Climate Adaptation, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. pp. 181–189.

7. Wainwright, D.J., Ranasinghe, R., Callaghan, D.P., Woodroffe, C.D., Dougherty, A.J., Rogers, K. and Cowell, P.J. (2015) Moving from deterministic towards probabilistic coastal hazard and risk assessment: Development of a modelling framework and application to Narrabeen Beach, New South Wales, Australia. Coastal Engineering, 96: 92–99.

8. Thom, B.G., Eliot, I., Eliot, M., Harvey, N., Rissik, D., Sharples, C., Short, A.D. and Woodroffe, C.D., (2018) National sediment compartment framework for Australian coastal management. Ocean & Coastal Management, 154, 103–120.

9. Kay, R.C., Crossland, C.J., Gardner, S., Waterman, P. and Woodroffe, C.D., (2005) Assessing and communicating vulnerability of the Australian coast to climate change: Strategic Discussion Paper. Unpublished report to the Australian Greenhouse Office.

10. Abuodha, P. and Woodroffe, C.D. (2006) International assessments of the vulnerability of the coastal zone to climate change. Report to Australian Greenhouse Office [RFQ 116/2005DEH].