60th anniversary of the greatest flood
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.