Year

2018

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Abstract

Increased habitation and global warming is posing growing threats to the coastal zone and estuarine settings through direct and indirect environmental and anthropogenic modification of sensitive coastal systems and their relevant catchments. It is essential to understand the impact of the different stressors on the coastal environment under current conditions and within the historical record in order to predict future responses of estuaries and coastal wetlands.

Short-term remote sensing and GIS modelling and field assessment have made a significant contribution to our knowledge on estuarine and coastal wetland dynamism within the last few decades. This thesis assesses the potential impacts of anthropogenic modifications, climatic factors and sea level rise on estuarine eco-geomorphic intertidal sedimentary landforms and their associated coastal wetlands in southeastern Australia based on three estuarine systems on the south coast of NSW: the estuarine Comerong Island, Wandandian deltaic estuary, and Towamba estuary.

The thesis’ short-term evaluation approach shows that the degradation levels on estuarine platforms are dependent on catchment development, sediment characteristics, ecosystem stability and sea level rise inundation. During anticipated climate change and rising sea level conditions, estuaries depend on their sediment source areas, especially on modifications to their river catchment. Catchments with high anthropogenic modification levels, like the dam infrastructure in the Shoalhaven River catchment, influence sediment availability and transportation with clear impacts on eco-geomorphic coastal platform losses. In contrast, mostly unmodified but high-sloped catchments, such as the Towamba example, may have other negative effects on the estuary since the sediments are poorly sorted and coarser noncohesive quartz-dominated particles cause the geomorphic landforms and associated ecosystems to be more vulnerable to erosion and lead to less stable vegetation. Regions with small moderately modified catchments, such as the Wandandian site, allow ideal geomorphic processes to occur. Here, sediment is weathered slowly and moved downstream naturally to a secure inner estuarine deltaic setting where fine sandy/silty particles accumulate and provide more geomorphic stability. Associated vegetation assemblages ensure the progradation and steady growth of the deltaic eco-geomorphic system.

The thesis assessment shows the eco-geomorphic-dynamism of the Towamba estuary, which has a mostly unmodified catchment surface (only 14% anthropogenic modifications), has grown a total of 0.17 km2 since 1949. This growth rate indicates that the Towamba estuary future scenarios will mostly be filled at the completion of the 21st Century. In comparison, the partially modified (22.1%) catchment has prograded the Wandandian deltaic shorelines resulting in the total growth of 0.24 km2 during the study period (1949-2016). However, results on Comerong Island show significant changes in the spatial extent, elevation, and shorelines with total net losses of 0.3 km2 over the investigated timespan (1949-2014). Changes included northern accretion (0.4 km2), and western, middle and southern erosion (0.7 km2) of the island.

The thesis emphasises the dynamic character of the estuarine eco-geomorphic system, particularly using Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) as a vegetation canopy assessment approach. This approach illustrates the significant correlations between vegetation and climatic and geomorphic influences at the study sites, indicating that these factors are the main drivers of vegetation canopy disturbance on intertidal sedimentary landforms during the 21st Century. Locally, map-algebra expression shows the spatial distribution of the NDVI identifies areas that need to be managed in relation to the causes and drivers. This modelling confirms the LiDAR-DEMs-driven character of the existing situations to their influencing factors, which also control the estimated future-scenarios and illustrate clear inundatable landform zones at the study sites by 2100. Results indicate that the rise of sea level will have tremendous effects on the coastal eco-geomorphic systems, particularly wetlands, throughout southeastern Australia and equivalent systems overseas by the end of this century.

This thesis develops possible mitigation and adaptation strategies and sustainable solutions that might be utilized to minimize the indirect devastating consequences of climate change and anthropogenic modifications, particularly damming rivers, which cause direct sedimentation problems as implied by the Tallowa Dam case study.

The thesis shows that intertidal sedimentary landforms will have a future negative or positive vegetarian response according to their evolving morphological character. Within a short-term timescale, the whole eco-geomorphic system will interact with many environmental and anthropogenic variables (particularly sedimentation rates) to evolve its own character over a longer timescale. Therefore, the long term assessment approach can be directed by having a better understanding of the existing situation and accurately identifying the past drivers.

Future projections indicate that indirect anthropogenic-induced global warming will have a great effect on estuaries and coastal wetlands in the 21st Century. This research helps to provide an important framework for quantifying the current situation, future stressors and vulnerability responses during any intensification of natural and artificial coastal hazards, which may be of concern to the general public and environmental scientists who are currently focusing their attention on the best way to preserve estuaries and their wetland ecosystems at the current stage of global warming and human settlement.

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