Since time immemorial, coastal areas of eastern England
and the Netherlands have been inundated repeatedly. Storm
winds have raised sea levels and generated huge waves. Coastal
defences have failed. Agricultural land has been flooded.
People and their livestock have perished.
1. Death and destruction
3. Storm tide warnings
4. From depression to flood
5. Flood defences
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In the south-west of the Netherlands on 18 November
1421, water from the North Sea swept through 72
villages and 10,000 people died. Again in 1570,
1825, 1894, 1916 and 1953, disastrous breaches of
Dutch coastal defences occurred. For the people
of the Netherlands, these defences have always been
vitally important: 40 per cent of their country
lies below mean sea level.
Along the coast of eastern England, too, from
the Humber to the Thames, there have been many
failures of coastal defences.
In a storm in 1897, for example, 1.5 kilometres
of the shingle spit at Orford Ness in Suffolk was
washed away. And on 6-7 January 1928, a northerly
gale raised water levels in the Thames Estuary so
much that disastrous flooding of London occurred.
At several places in the City, Southwark, Westminster
and Hammersmith, water overtopped the embankments
and low-lying riverside districts were flooded.
When a section of the embankment near Lambeth Bridge
collapsed, water rushed into the basements of nearby
houses so quickly that people were unable to escape
and 14 were drowned.
The coast of eastern England
The deviation of the observed tide at a given place
and time from the tide that would occur if there were
no meteorological influence is called a surge.
A surge is positive if the water level is higher
than the tide caused only by astronomical forces,
negative if lower. Positive surges occur when water
is driven towards a coast, negative when it is driven
Surges are caused mainly by the action of wind on
the surface of the sea, with barometric pressure a
secondary factor. When pressure decreases by one millibar,
sea level rises by one centimetre. Thus, a deep depression
with a central pressure of about 960 mb causes sea
level to rise half a metre above the level it would
have been had pressure been about average (1013 mb).
When pressure is above average, sea level correspondingly
The effect of a strong wind coupled with very low
pressure can be to raise sea level in eastern England
more than two metres. Fortunately, though, large positive
surges tend to favour mid-tide. They rarely coincide
with high water.
The strong winds that create surges also generate
large waves. Embankments are usually high enough and
other coastal defences sound enough to protect against
all but the highest of surges. However, waves wash
away protective dunes, and batter sea walls relentlessly,
weakening them until they fail. They break over coastal
defences, too, undermining the foundations on the
landward side, until structural failure occurs.
3: Waves breaking
on the beach. Photo© Environment Agency
The greatest surge on record for the North Sea as
a whole occurred on 31 January and 1 February 1953.
Its amplitude reached 2.74 m at Southend in Essex,
2.97 m at King's Lynn in Norfolk and 3.36 m
in the Netherlands.
Almost 100,000 hectares of eastern England were flooded
and 307 people died. In the Netherlands, 50 dykes
burst and 1,800 people drowned. The flood covered
nine per cent of all Dutch agricultural land and three
per cent of the dairy country. The sea reclaimed over
200,000 hectares of polder country.
The flooding of 1953. Photos © Environment Agency
To some extent, the disastrous surge of 1953 was
predicted successfully by the Met Office and the Dutch
Surge Warning Service, in that forecasts of dangerously
high water levels were issued several hours before
they occurred. Nevertheless, the committee appointed
by the British Government to inquire into the disaster
recommended that a flood-warning organisation be set
up. This recommendation was implemented, the name
'Storm Tide Warning Service' being adopted later.
Its Dutch counterpart had been established soon after
the great surge of January 1916, when the dykes of
the Zuyder Zee were breached in many places and vast
areas of the Netherlands inundated.
The storm that caused the disastrous surge at the
end of January 1953 was among the worst to visit the
UK in the 20th century. Hurricane-force winds had
blown down more trees in Scotland than were normally
felled in a year. A car ferry, the Princess Victoria,
on passage from Stranraer in Scotland to Larne in
Northern Ireland, sank with the loss of 133 lives.
Only 41 of the passengers and crew survived. From
Yorkshire to the Thames Estuary, coastal defences
had been pounded by the sea and given way under the
During the afternoon of 31 January, the shingle spit
of Spurn Head in Yorkshire was breached. Soon after
darkness fell, Lincolnshire bore the brunt of the
storm. Sand was scoured from beaches and sand hills,
timber-piled dunes were breached, the landward slopes
of embankments were eroded, concrete sea walls crumbled,
the promenades of Mablethorpe and Sutton-on-Sea were
wrecked, and saline water from the North Sea flooded
Later that evening, embankments around The Wash were
overtopped and people were drowned in northern Norfolk.
Fifteen died in King's Lynn and another 65 between
there and Hunstanton. At Wells-next-the-Sea, a 160-ton
vessel was left high and dry on the quay.
5: Boats washed
ashore by high seas
Surges travel counter-clockwise around the North
Sea basin, first southwards down the western side
of the basin, then northwards up the eastern side.
They take about 24 hours to progress from north-east
Scotland to south-west Norway.
In 1953, because many telephone lines in Lincolnshire
and Norfolk had been brought down by the wind, virtually
no warnings of the storm's severity were passed to
counties farther south until it was too late. Suffolk
and Essex suffered most.
By midnight, Felixstowe, Harwich and Maldon had been
flooded, with much loss of life. Soon after midnight,
the sea walls on Canvey Island collapsed and 58 people
died. At Jaywick in Clacton, the sea rose a metre
in 15 minutes and 35 people drowned.
The surge travelled on. From Tilbury to London's
docklands, oil refineries, factories, cement works,
gasworks and electricity generating stations were
flooded and brought to a standstill.
In London's East End, 100 metres of sea wall collapsed,
causing more than 1,000 houses to be inundated and
640,000 cubic metres of Thames water to flow into
the streets of West Ham. The BP oil refinery on the
Isle of Grain was flooded, and so too was the Naval
Dockyard at Sheerness.
In the early hours of 30 January, the storm that
was to wreak all this havoc was an unremarkable depression
with a central pressure of 996 mb located a little
to the south of Iceland. Such a depression here was
not unusual. During that day, however, the depression
deepened rapidly and headed eastwards.
By 1800 UTC on 30 January, it was near the Faeroes,
its central pressure 980 mb By 1200 UTC on 31 January,
it was centred over the North Sea between Aberdeenshire
and southern Norway and its central pressure was 968
Meanwhile, a strong ridge of high pressure had built
up over the Atlantic Ocean south of Iceland, the pressure
within being more than 1030 mb. In the steep pressure
gradient that now existed on the western flanks of
the depression, there was a very strong flow from
a northerly point. Winds of Force 10 were reported
from exposed parts of Scotland and northern England
and a gust of 56 m/s was measured on the Orkney Islands.
The depression turned south-east and deepened to 966
mb before filling. By 1200 UTC on 1 February, it lay
over northern Germany, its central pressure now 984
Fig 6: East
coast floods of 1953
|In the deep water of the
open ocean in the northern hemisphere, winds drive water
45° to the right of the wind. In the southern hemisphere,
they drive it 45° to the left. In shallow water, the
angle between wind direction and resulting current is
considerably less. The deviation is caused by the effect
of Earth's rotation, the so-called 'Coriolis effect',
through which moving objects are deviated to the right
in the northern hemisphere, left in the southern. In
western parts of the southern North Sea, where the water
depth is around 15-25 m, the angle of deviation is 20-30°.
7: The variation
of a wind-driven current with depth (after Ekman
All day on 31 January, winds blew from the north
over western parts of the North Sea, with a strength
of Force 10 or 11. They drove water south-south-westwards,
and generated waves more than eight metres high. The
surge originated in the waters off the north-east
coast of Scotland and was amplified as it travelled
first southwards along the eastern coasts of Scotland
and England, and then north-east along the coast of
the Netherlands. It reached Ijmuiden in the Netherlands
around 0400 UTC on 1 February.
Since 1953, there have been other large surges in
the North Sea, among them one, on 12 January 1978,
that caused extensive flooding and damage along the
east coast of England from Humberside to Kent. London
came close to disaster, escaping inundation by only
0.5 m, and the enormous steel and rubber floodgates
designed to protect the major London docks were closed
for the first time since their completion in 1972.
Concern over rising sea levels, isostatic subsidence
of south-east England and the appalling consequences
of a major flood in central London led to the construction
of the Thames Flood Barrier near Woolwich. This was
completed in 1982.
Incidentally, the earliest record of a flood in London,
dated 1099, is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
'On the festival of St Martin (11 November), the sea
flood sprung up to such a height and did so much harm
as no man remembered that it ever did before'.
Over the years, coastal defences in the Netherlands
and eastern England have been raised and strengthened
continually to protect against storm surges. Our coasts
and estuaries are safer now than they have ever been.
Nevertheless, surges remain a threat, as complete
protection against the most extreme can never be guaranteed.
At least the likelihood of being taken by surprise
is now rather low, because weather and surge forecasting
systems have improved greatly in recent years, and
the Storm Tide Forecasting Service has established
clear and effective procedures for alerting the authorities
when danger threatens.