Given that the vast majority of the Australian population resides in coastal areas, developing methods and fixes for the potential rise in sea levels induced by climate change over the next several decades is an issue of pressing importance.

According to researchers from Princeton University, the more intense storm surges that will result from higher sea levels will render conventional methods for coastal protection, such as levees and seawalls, far less effective.

They instead advocate the development of “resilient designs” for coping with the problem of occasional flooding, as opposed to attempts to preventing them completely.

“We will never be able to prevent such hazards,” said Ning Lin, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University. “We can only be prepared to reduce their impact.”

The resilient designs envisaged by Princeton’s Coastal Resilience team – a cross-disciplinary group of researchers including architects, engineers and climate scientists, involve revitalising and reengineering the so-called “soft infrastructure” of natural features, such as sand dunes and wet lands in addition to the construction of artificial barriers.

According to Princeton Professor of Architecture Guy Nordenson, this will involve the creation of “layered systems of natural and engineered structures that will respond in different ways to different’s a more nuanced and resilient approach.”

Improvements to the soft infrastructure of wetlands and beach dunes will serve multiple functions – reducing the impact of waves and storm surges during intense flooding, as well as enhancing water quality and producing new spaces that can be used for recreational purposes by both local residents and tourists.

The key to effective improvement of natural infrastructure will lie in flexibility of design, in order to best adapt to changing climate conditions and the variable strength and frequency of storms.

“We are trying to take what we know right now and do the best job we can in accounting for the uncertainties in what we know, and use that to explore how we should be thinking about adaption,” said James Smith, the William and Edna Macaleer Professor of Engineering and Applied Science and and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton.

This innovative approach to flood prevention could be of eminent relevance to many parts of Australia – in particular Queensland, which has suffered from a spate of severe storm and flooding events in recent years, prompting the state government to commit huge amounts of funding to resistance and mitigation measures.

The most recent major flooding event in eastern Australia was Tropical Cyclone Oswald in January 2013, which affected both New South Wales and Queensland, leaving coastal regions of the sunshine state particularly hard hit.

Only two years prior, a series of floods running from the end of 2010 to 2011 affected many parts of Queensland, with Minister for Primary Industries Tim Mulherin describing the natural disaster as the state’s “worst flood in 120 years.” The floods affected over 70 towns and 200,000 people, as well as caused an estimated $2.38 billion in direct damage, and deprived Australia’s GDP of approximately $30 billion.