Little girl throwing beach ball in sea at  Sullivans Bay, Mahurangi Regional Park.
Little girl throwing beach ball in sea at Sullivans Bay, Mahurangi Regional Park.

ScienceSeptember 22, 2019

Predicting the future of New Zealand with the rising sea

Little girl throwing beach ball in sea at  Sullivans Bay, Mahurangi Regional Park.
Little girl throwing beach ball in sea at Sullivans Bay, Mahurangi Regional Park.

Covering Climate Now: Ruby Porter looks into New Zealand’s future when the sea level rises 10, 25 and 80 metres, and finds out how much of Auckland will be left.

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I grew up in Ponsonby, but the only bay I knew around here was Cox’s. It’s fed by a creek which was once a mahinga kai, but now is more of a stormwater drain and, on a good day, stinks. I’d heard of other beaches – kids at my school who lived in Herne Bay talked about jumping off a wharf on sunny afternoons. I imagined the wharf like the one in Dawson’s Creek. I imagined the beaches like the ones I knew, Whāngārā, Hokio, Waitarere, Ohope. Stretching out, flanked by sand dunes.

On Jonathon Musther’s personal website, there’s a page called New Zealand Sea Level Rise. It induces a kind of tech nostalgia: lo-fi, 90s Microsoft, Web 1.0 aesthetic, transparent textbox hovering over a screenshot of a map of the Sounds, Helevetica font, bolded titles, bright blue sea, bright blue hyperlinks. Each of these links leads to topographic maps of New Zealand, or regions of New Zealand, and what their coastlines will look like after a 10 metre, 25 metre or 80 metre rise in sea level. I’ve spent hours time travelling with a few clicks. 

10 metre rise

Two of my mums lived near French Bay in Titirangi for several years. Fionn, one of my best friends, did too. For some reason, I never picture it being sunny. It was always a few degrees too cold to swim, but we’d swim anyway. I can’t remember if it was Fionn or my brother Felix who put a small crab down my togs. I never managed to find it. For weeks afterwards, I would check my naked body, every time I got undressed. 

Phoebe, a close friend of mine, lived next to Point Chev Beach. I remember wagging Year 8 swimming sports to swim in there instead. We climbed over the fence at the edge of Coyle Park, and wound around the peninsula. I was always two yards behind her, clambering between wet rocks and pōhutukawa roots. 

One day, after school, I realised I could just walk to Home Bay. It was a little pocket of beach, all mud and no sand, every shell broken, the sea lapping against an old stone wall. There was a spot in the sun on the concrete, and I read there, for a while. 

It was when I went to Northcote College that I discovered Shore beaches, an entirely better, sandier kind. I remember the first time I went to Minnehaha. I can’t remember if it was a teachers-only day, or if we just took an afternoon off. Back then, it felt like a secret, something elicit – but maybe that was just the beers in our schoolbags. To get there, we had to take a series of steps from the bottom of a dead-end suburban street, and hop across the rocks with their signposted warnings.

When I got my dog Pablo, my mum and I started taking him to Cheltanham Beach in Devonport on the weekends. The other dogs were freshly groomed, off the beach by ten. But Pablo was still a fleck in the distance when ten o’clock came. Running in circles, herding every last seagull back to shore. The salt never fully washed out from his dreads.

Musther says the sea could rise 10 metres if any one of the Greenland, West Antarctic, or East Antarctic ice sheets collapse. The map of Tāmaki Makaurau turns our roads into a mass of veins, a knot of threads, a weaving. Press zoom. Scroll up. Scroll right. I try to find my house. It’s not underwater yet, if I’m right, if the road I’m looking at is Jervois. It’s the beach of the future, bright blue ocean lapping at its edge. Herne Bay’s multimillion-dollar villas submerged. Hermes scarves floating out to sea. Kids jump off Rod Duke’s helipad on sunny afternoons. 

The day after I met my partner Michael, we sat and talked at Home Bay. Pablo chased the seagulls in short laps, confined bursts. Michael had grown up in Wellington and didn’t realise a bad beach when he saw one. We went back there a few times, just to read. 

Cheltanham is the flattest of the beaches. It’ll be the first to go. The backyards and their decks will turn into swamps. The video surveillance signs will attract barnacles. The faux-Spanish apartments will go from three-storeys, to two, to one. Just a slither of orange and pink stucco will float above the sea. And then, only the roofs will remain. 

At a 10 metre rise, Point Chev doesn’t exist at all. 

Photo: CCO/Public Domain

25 metre rise

I have this memory of going to a Scouts meeting at Cox’s Bay. Phoebe loved Scouts, she got all the badges. But I only went that once. I don’t remember much – when I try, the fragments of that night move further away from me. It’s like trying to piece together a dream, or grab at something in water. All I remember is that I hated it. 

Michael and I were apart for a couple weeks that first summer. Sometimes, I would watch him on my Snapchat map, his solemn little Bitmoji walking from his apartment on Upper Queen Street, down Ponsonby and Jervois Roads, all the way to Home Bay. 

Now we walk to Point Chev instead. Past the Countdown, buy bread and olives and two VBs. We take our books. Every time we go, it seems more and more crowded. People choke the sand, flood the grass banks. 

I don’t know French Bay anymore. Michael and I visited the McCahon House then walked down to it last winter. I wasn’t sure it was the same beach. It had been so much larger in my memory.

My mum and I still go to Cheltanham. It’s become a ritual – each Saturday morning. We buy a coffee and the newspaper on the way.

Musther says the sea could rise 25 metres if most of the world’s freshwater ice was to melt. This would mean the loss of all of Greenland’s ice sheet, and probably half of Antarctica’s. Zoom in. Scroll down. The pixels reveal themselves, their encroaching blue frontline. Northcote College is now seaside. The students go swimming at lunchtime. My house is underwater; Ponsonby Road, gone. East Tamaki to Ihumātao has fallen below the surface.  

At four am, one night last year, Michael and I decided to walk to Mount Eden and climb Maungawhau to watch the sunrise. Tāmaki Makaurau was still hazy when we ascended, just a shadow of itself. The only other person up there was a man flying his drone. The electric whirring cut through our silence. The sun hoisted itself onto the horizon. We watched the early planes circle, big international jets, trying to work out whether they were landing, or just taking off. It was only then, looking out to the Waitakere Ranges, out to the Ōtuataua Stonefields, across the Manakau and Waitematā Harbours, it was only seeing the emaciated Devonport peninsula, that I realised here, in Auckland, we’re more sea than land.

Waves crashing on the shores of Funafuti, Tuvalu, a country that will be particularly susceptible to climate change and rising sea levels. (Getty Images)

80 metre rise

The less ice we have, the more quickly it melts. Its rate is exponential. 

In my teenage years, Titirangi was where my nightmares were set. I’d be walking with my mums, up a steep road, and then I’d be on my hands and knees, trying not to slide backwards, and they’d be way ahead, metres above, turning a corner.

Minnehaha got included in an Urbanlist article of Auckland’s Best Secret Swimming Spots. The last time I went back it was crawling.

I walk Pablo most days around Cox’s Reserve. You get used to the smell. I tense up whenever we come to the western end, closest to the bay. I’m worried that, one day, he’ll see a seagull, and run across the road.  

The sea will rise approximately 80 metres when all the major ice sheets and glaciers are gone. 

At 80 metres, Maungawhau is just an island.

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