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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Southampton oceanographers are helping to ensure storm surge barriers continue to protect millions of people worldwide

Published: 9 December 2021
The Hollandsche Ijssel storm surge
The Hollandsche Ijssel storm surge in The Netherlands

Climate change and rising sea levels are putting the world’s storm surge barriers under increasing pressure. Oceanographers at Southampton are driving forward research to understand the impact this change in climate is having on these barriers that protect approximately 30 million people and trillions of pounds of property and infrastructure globally.

The team of experts from Ocean and Earth Science, led by Dr Ivan Haigh, Associate Professor in Coastal Oceanography, has recently launched in collaboration with Rijkswaterstaat - the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management - to look at the country’s six storm surge barriers. They aim to understand the potential impact of climate change on these barriers and to plan a programme of maintenance to ensure they are fit for the future.  
Ivan, who was accompanied on the trip by colleague Addina Inayatillah (Naya), and PhD student Sunke Trace-Kleeberg, said: “There are more than 20 large storm surge barriers, as well as many more smaller ones, in operation worldwide today and other barriers are being planned.” 

“A storm surge barrier is a fully or partly movable barrier that is closed prior to a storm to prevent flooding behind the barrier. It can subsequently be reopened to facilitate shipping and allow natural movement of tides.”

“Accelerating rates of sea-level rise (SLR) and changes in the frequency and intensity of storms are starting to cause surge barriers to have to close more frequently. This has critical implications for barrier operation, integrity, reliability, maintenance, projected lifespan and future upgrade or replacement planning.”

“Our expertise on storms surges, sea level rise and climate change is crucial to understand what needs to be done to ensure that these protective barriers continue to operate in future years.”

Maeslant Barrier
Maeslant Barrier (Credit: Dr Ivan Haigh)

Ivan has been working extensively with the Environment Agency for the past two years, looking at the Thames Estuary 2100 Flood Management Plan. The Thames Barrier protects 1.3 million people, 400 schools, 16 hospitals, four world heritage sites, £275bn worth of property, critical energy and transport infrastructure from flooding. It also preserves an estimated £2bn per annum of Foreign Direct Investment to the London economy.

Ivan designed a software tool to predict how many closures the Thames Barrier will have to make over the 21st century, under different climate change projections. At the same time Southampton was invited to be part of I-Storm - an international knowledge-sharing network for professionals relating to the management, operation and maintenance of storm surge barriers.

This led Rijkswaterstaat to explore the potential of collaborating with Southampton and three projects have now been set up:

  • Ivan was recently awarded a three-year Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded Knowledge Exchange Fellowship to work with the Environment Agency, Rijkswaterstaat and other storm surge barriers worldwide providing guidance and tools that will help operators better prepare for the impacts of climate change across every area now and into the future;
  • Rijkswaterstaat funded a one-year project involving Ivan and Naya looking at past and future closures of the six Dutch storm surge barriers;
  • Rijkswaterstaat part-funded a PhD for Sunke to look at whether it is possible to undertaken maintenance of storm surge barriers over winter months.

Ivan added: “It is absolutely vital that barrier operators carefully consider and adapt their operation, maintenance and management to account for climate change, and carefully plan for the major barrier upgrades/replacements that will inevitably be needed in the future. 

Ramspol Barrier
Ramspol Barrier (Credit: Dr Ivan Haigh)

“This work usually occurs during the off-season and is vital to ensure surge barriers are dependable. In 2020 the Thames Barrier was closed in May for the first time delaying important maintenance.

“Our work will help Rijkswaterstaat and other surge barrier operators better prepare for the impacts of climate change across every area of their operation, both now and into the future. In the future we hope to work with other surge barrier operators worldwide."

The recent trip to Rijkswaterstaat allowed the team to discover the complexities of the six storm surge barriers in The Netherlands and understand their specific characteristics and diversity. It also enabled them to build connections and network with employees.

This research is being fed back into the curriculum and is benefitting both current and future Southampton students. Ivan supervises undergraduate and postgraduate projects on storm surge barriers and also teaches a master’s module on Sea Level Rise and Coastal Management that includes a session on storm surge barriers and a visit to the Thames Barrier.

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