The Torres Strait is a stretch of water that separates Australia's northernmost point from Papua New Guinea's southern coast. It is around 150km wide and spans an area of approximately 48,000 square kilometers (Elias, Bussey, & Rio, 2004). The Torres Strait is home to over 100 small islands, with the larger ones being inhabited by the Torres Strait Islanders (Parnell & Smithers, 2022). The region is known for its rich marine biodiversity, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves, which support a range of marine life, including dugongs, sea turtles, and various species of fish (Marshall et al., 2013). The Torres Strait also has cultural significance, as it was a meeting point for Indigenous peoples from Australia and Papua New Guinea for thousands of years (Jowitt & Briskman, 2016).
Torres Strait Islander History and Culture
The Torres Strait Islanders are the Indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands. They have a rich history and culture that dates back at least 2,500 years (Zubrzycki, 2010; McInnes et al., 2009). The Torres Strait Islands were an important trading hub for Indigenous peoples from Australia and Papua New Guinea, and the Islanders have a complex system of customs and beliefs that reflect this history (Song Jian et al., 2022). The Islanders have a deep spiritual connection to the land and sea, and their culture is built around fishing, hunting, and farming (Zubrzycki, 2010). Traditional music and dance are also an important part of their culture, with the Islanders using unique instruments and styles that reflect their unique history and environment (McInnes et al., 2009). Today, the Torres Strait Islanders continue to maintain their traditional way of life, while also adapting to modern society. They have a strong sense of community and pride in their heritage and work hard to preserve their culture for future generations (Marshall et al., 2013). As the islands are of great cultural and historical significance to the Torres Strait Islander community, official approval from the Torres Strait Authority is required to visit them (Zubrzycki, 2010). This is because the Torres Strait Islanders have a unique cultural identity, distinct from Aboriginal culture, and their land and sea territories have legal recognition under Australian law (Song Jian et al., 2022).
The Threat of Climate Change
Climate change is crippling this island community in many ways:
- Physical Hazards
- Sea Level Rise
- Storm Surges
- Ocean Acidification
- Flora and Fauna
- Socio-economic Hazards
- Food Insecurity
- Cultural Practices
(Song Jian et al., 2022; Thomas, Ramkumar, & Shanmugam, 2022; Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, 2019; Jowitt & Briskman, 2016; McInnes et al., 2009; Durrant, Barrett, & Edgar, 2004)
The Torres Strait Islands are particularly vulnerable to climate change for several reasons:
- low-lying with an average elevation of 2m
- located where the fastest and most extreme level of sea level rise occurs
- heavily dependent on marine life
(Google Earth, 2019; OHCHR, 2019; TSRA, 2018)
Sea Level Rise
The Torres Strait is facing significant sea level rise due to the impacts of climate change, with rates of sea level rise in the region exceeding the global average (Jowitt & Briskman, 2016; Marshall et al., 2013; McInnes et al., 2009). Since 1992, sea levels in the region have risen at an average rate of 6.4 millimeters per year, which is more than double the global average of 3.2 millimeters per year (McInnes et al., 2009). This is due to a combination of factors, including the warming of the oceans, which causes thermal expansion of the water, and the melting of land-based ice sheets and glaciers (Jowitt & Briskman, 2016). The sea level rise is having significant impacts on the islands and communities of the Torres Strait, with increased flooding, erosion, and coastal inundation affecting infrastructure, homes, and important cultural sites (McInnes et al., 2009). The sea level rise is also affecting the freshwater resources of the islands, with saltwater intrusion into aquifers and wells making it more difficult for island communities to access clean drinking water (McMichael & Barnett, 2010). Urgent action is needed to address the impacts of sea level rise in the Torres Strait, including major adaptation measures.
Along with sea level rise, the Torres Strait is experiencing an increase in storm surges due to climate change (Zubrzycki, 2010). Storm surges occur when strong winds and low atmospheric pressure combine to push seawater onto the shore, resulting in coastal flooding and erosion (Thomas et al., 2022). As global temperatures continue to rise, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including tropical cyclones and storm surges, are also increasing (Parnell & Smithers, 2020). This is particularly concerning for the Torres Strait, which is already vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise. The combination of storm surges and sea level rise can lead to significant coastal inundation, damaging infrastructure, and homes, and posing a risk to the safety and livelihoods of island communities (Song Jian et al., 2022). Mitigation measures such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow the rate of climate change and adaptation measures are needed to address the risks posed by increased storm surges in the Torres Strait (TSRA, 2018).
Ocean acidification is another significant impact of climate change on the Torres Strait. As the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase, the oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, which leads to a decrease in pH levels and increased acidity (Thomas, Ramkumar, & Shanmugam, 2022). This process is known as ocean acidification and can have significant impacts on marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, shellfish, and other organisms with calcium carbonate shells (Jowitt & Briskman, 2016). The Torres Strait is home to some of the world's most diverse and complex coral reef ecosystems, which are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of ocean acidification (Thomas, Ramkumar, & Shanmugam, 2022). As the pH of the water decreases, corals are less able to build their skeletons, which can lead to coral bleaching and the eventual collapse of the reef ecosystem (Jowitt & Briskman, 2016). Ocean acidification can also have broader impacts on the food chain, as shellfish and other organisms with calcium carbonate shells are affected (Hegarty & Walker, 2018). Urgent action is needed to address the impacts of ocean acidification in the Torres Strait, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow the rate of carbon dioxide absorption by the oceans and developing adaptive measures (Song et al., 2022; TSRA, 2019).
Flora and Fauna
Climate change is having significant impacts on the flora and fauna of the Torres Strait, a biologically diverse region between Australia and Papua New Guinea (Elias et al., 2004). Rising temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and ocean acidification are altering important ecological processes and driving the destruction of critical habitats (McInnes et al., 2009). One of the most notable effects of climate change is sea level rise, which is causing the loss of important nesting and breeding sites for sea turtles, as well as inundating low-lying areas of mangroves and wetlands (Marshall et al., 2013). In addition, warmer waters are causing coral bleaching and the decline of coral reef ecosystems, which provide vital habitats for numerous species of fish, invertebrates, and other marine life (Marshall et al., 2013).
Changes in rainfall patterns are also having significant effects on terrestrial ecosystems in the Torres Strait (McInnes et al., 2009). These changes are affecting vegetation patterns, leading to the loss of native plant species and shifts in the timing and intensity of fire regimes (Durrant, Barrett, & Edgar, 2004). These alterations in vegetation are impacting the availability of food and shelter for many animal species, which in turn is having negative consequences on population sizes and distributions (Durrant, Barrett, & Edgar, 2004).
Moreover, climate change is leading to the spread of invasive species, which can outcompete and displace native species. This is particularly problematic in the Torres Strait, which is home to numerous endemic species found nowhere else on Earth (Marshall et al., 2013). The region's unique biodiversity is further threatened by extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, which are expected to become more frequent and intense due to climate change (Parnell & Smithers, 2020).
Socio-economic Well-being Hazards
Climate change is having significant impacts on the socio-economic well-being of communities in the Torres Strait (Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, 2019; TSRA, 2018). Rising sea levels, increased storm surges, and more frequent and intense weather events are affecting the region's infrastructure, food security, and cultural practices (Thomas et al., 2022). The impacts of climate change are disproportionately felt by Torres Strait Islanders, who rely heavily on the region's natural resources for their livelihoods and cultural practices (TRSA, 2018).
One of the most significant impacts of climate change on the socio-economic well-being of the Torres Strait is the loss of coastal infrastructure due to sea level rise and storm surges (TSRA, 2018). Infrastructure such as jetties, roads, and housing is particularly vulnerable to damage and erosion from rising sea levels and more frequent and intense weather events (McMichael & Barnett, 2010). This has resulted in significant costs for repairs and relocation of infrastructure, which can be challenging for already economically disadvantaged communities (TSRA, 2018).
Climate change is also impacting food security in the Torres Strait (TSRA, 2018). The region's fishing and agriculture industries are particularly vulnerable to changes in the marine and terrestrial environments, including changes in rainfall patterns, ocean acidification, and loss of critical habitats such as coral reefs (Hegarty & Walker, 2018). This can result in reduced yields and income, and increased reliance on imported food, which can be more expensive and less culturally appropriate (Jowitt & Briskman, 2016).
Moreover, climate change is affecting the cultural practices and identity of Torres Strait Islander communities (TSRA, 2018). The loss of important cultural and spiritual sites due to coastal erosion and sea level rise can have significant impacts on the mental health and well-being of communities (Reef and Rainforest Research Centre, 2019). In addition, changes in weather patterns can affect traditional hunting and gathering practices, such as the timing and availability of seasonal resources (Song et al., 2022).
The Torres Strait Islander Indigenous knowledge, which has been passed down through generations of islanders, has proven to be invaluable in building resilience to the impacts of climate change. This knowledge encompasses a deep understanding of the natural environment, including weather patterns, tides, and seasonal changes, as well as traditional practices and customs that have sustained the community for centuries (UNDRR, 2019). One example of this knowledge in action is the practice of "hunting the tide," in which islanders use their understanding of tidal patterns to hunt for marine life during low tides (TSRA, 2018). This practice not only provides food but also helps to maintain ecological balance in the region (TSRA, 2018). Another example is the use of traditional building materials and techniques, such as thatching and raised floors, which can withstand flooding and storm surges (UNDRR, 2019). In addition, the islanders' knowledge of medicinal plants and their uses has helped to mitigate the health impacts of climate change, such as the spread of mosquito-borne diseases (UNDRR, 2019). Overall, the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge into climate change adaptation efforts has added a crucial layer of resilience to the Torres Strait Islander communities.
The local Indigenous communities have been implementing various adaptation measures to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Some of the primary efforts include:
- Strengthening the resilience of their traditional land and sea management practices by integrating modern scientific knowledge with traditional knowledge systems. This includes monitoring and managing the health of coral reefs and fish stocks, establishing marine protected areas, and developing early warning systems for extreme weather events (TSRA, 2018).
- Implementing infrastructure upgrades, such as raising houses and buildings, constructing seawalls, and improving water and sanitation systems, to increase their resilience to flooding and storm surges (TSRA, 2018).
Despite limited resources and funding, the Torres Strait Islanders are taking proactive measures to protect their cultural heritage and livelihoods from the impacts of climate change.
In 2019, the Torres Strait Islanders lodged a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee against the Australian government over its lack of action on climate change, which they claim is violating their human rights (OHCHR, 2019). The complaint alleges that the government's failure to take adequate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the impacts of climate change is resulting in the loss of their homes, culture, and traditional way of life (OHCHR, 2019). The Torres Strait Islanders are arguing that Australia's lack of action on climate change constitutes a violation of their rights to culture, family, and life, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (OHCHR, 2019). The complaint is significant as it is the first time a group of Pacific Islanders has taken formal action against a developed nation over its inaction on climate change (OHCHR, 2019). The complaint highlights the urgent need for governments to take concrete action to address the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities, particularly those in low-lying areas such as the Torres Strait Islands.
Meet the Author
Isabelle is from Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2025 with a double major in Environmental Studies and Government. With a specific interest in the intersectionality between the environment and political structures that manage environmental policy, this topic is relevant in the way that it pertains to the disproportionate effect that climate change has on communities with virtually no carbon footprint.
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