60th anniversary of the greatest flood

January 31, 2013

Floods dominate the news at the moment, with very heavy rainfall in short periods causing damage and disruption across the country.

It is difficult to quantify the impact on the lives of people who are forced to leave flooded homes, or the true cost of damage to property.  But the floods of recent years almost pale into insignificance when compared to the catastrophic events that occurred 60 years ago this week, and which led to the creation of a programme that continues to operate at the National Oceanography Centre’s Proudman Building in Liverpool.

The Great North Sea Flood of 1953 was one of the greatest natural disasters to befall Britain in modern times. It claimed the lives of more than 2,500 people in coastal communities in northern Europe – 307 of them in Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Essex, and19 in Scotland, with the Netherlands (1,836 deaths) bearing the brunt of the fatalities.  

The flood was caused by unusually high Spring tides, which joined forces with strong winds of an extratropical cyclone – also called a European windstorm – to form what oceanographers term a “storm surge”. This occurs when winds cause ocean water to pile up higher than normal sea-level – often to disastrous effect when the water is pushed towards the coast.

The destruction was extreme with 1,000 miles of coastline inundated, sea defences breached and 380 square miles of land submerged.  At least 30,000 people were forced to leave their homes and 24,000 properties were severely damaged.

A further 230 lives were lost at sea, including 133 people who perished when the ferry MV Princess Victoria sank in heavy seas in the North Channel, east of Belfast.  This alone was, at the time, the worst maritime disaster in United Kingdom waters, in terms of lives lost, since the end of the Second World War. 

The Government’s response included strengthening coastal defences and commissioning a project that led to the eventual construction of the Thames Barrier, which opened in 1984 and is designed to protect the capital from similar events in the future.

It was only after the great North Sea flood of 1953 that the need for an accurate, national flood warning system became apparent and central government become the main funder of storm surge forecasting research at NOC Liverpool.  The government continues to fund research into improved forecasting and early warning system, based on tidal gauges and computer models. This work is carried out  by the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool. 

To predict the occurrence of storm surges NOC scientists have developed computer models that run on supercomputers at the Met Office and play a vital role in today’s coastal flood warning system. The UK Coastal Monitoring and Forecasting (UKCMF) service is a partnership between NOC, the Environment Agency, the Met Office, and CEFAS, the fisheries agency. Forecasters work round the clock, 365 days a year, to combine the output from ocean models with information from wave models and real time data. The flood warning system uses a technique called ensemble forecasting to provide forecasters with a probability of which sea level forecast is more likely to be correct.


Event Date / Time Details
Event Date: 
Thursday, January 31, 2013 - 17:00

Home | Back to top

Information for…


The outputs of research generate new knowledge about the oceans. Transferring scientific knowledge to support business and industry is an important part of our NOC remit.



Our research is intended to tackle the big environmental issues facing the world. Research priorities will include the oceans' role in climate change, sea level change and the future of the Arctic Ocean.



The University of Southampton and the University of Liverpool both offer a range of highly regarded undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in Ocean and Earth Science.



For any media or press enquiries to the National Oceanography Centre follow the more link below. Please note the centre's press office is staffed from 0830 to 1730, Monday to Friday.



NOC Staff can access the Intranet and Webmail resources at the following URLS.


Follow what we are up to:

Follow NOCnews on Twitter Follow NOCSnews on Youtube Follow NOC on facebook

Subscribe to our email alerts service:
NOCMail logo

Delivery Partners

Delivery Partners helping to provide marine science national capability.


Marine Science Community

The creation of a wider association of Universities and research institutions to support wider engagement of the NOC with the marine science community is now underway.



The National Oceanographic Library is a national resource for the UK marine science community.


Principal scientists

All updated information for cruise participants can be found using the Marine Facilities Planning website: