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The University of Southampton
Public Engagement with Research

Surgewatch: engaging the public on coastal flooding and sea level rise

science in the pub
'science in the pub' event on Coastal Flooding

Project Lead

Ivan Haigh, Associate Professor in Coastal Oceanography


Building on the SurgeWatch database, which documents historical coastal flooding events around the UK coast, this project aimed to stimulate wider interest, excitement, understanding and debate about coastal flooding.  More than simply informing the public about their research, the team sought actively to engage them as participants, in order to crowd-source and record new events and improve understanding of old events by obtaining lost materials, such as photographs, videos and stories.  From these, researchers could estimate the depth, duration and extent of the flood, and better understand its consequences.


Although the team’s research is national and international, it has a strong Solent focus, so the engagement targeted people in this local area.  More than 24,000 properties across the Solent are currently exposed to a 1 in 200 year coastal flood. More than half of this exposure is in Portsmouth, which (after London and Hull) contains the most properties exposed to coastal flooding for any city in the UK. Over the next decade more than £150 million will be spent on upgrading flood defenses in Portsmouth alone. 55 members of the public attended the project’s central event (see below).

Background and motivation for the project

Coastal flooding remains one of the most significant risks facing the UK, with wide-ranging social, economic and environmental impacts; £150 billion of assets and 4 million people are currently at risk.  Despite the fact that the UK has a long history of severe coastal flooding, no formal system exists to catalogue storms that lead to coastal flooding.  Furthermore, information on the extent of flooding and associated damages is not systematically documented nationwide. To address this deficiency, the researchers developed a detailed national database on coastal flooding called ‘SurgeWatch’ (, which this engagement project sought to build on.


The team partnered with Eastern Solent Coastal Partnership (ESCP) who manage defence upgrade projects; and the Coastal Channel Observatory.

Approach taken

The project’s central activity was a ‘science in the pub’ engagement event on coastal flooding, held at the Still and West pub in Portsmouth in July 2017.  The first hour comprised ten-minute talks by researchers and ESC partners, looking at:

The second half was opened up for audience questions and discussion; participants were invited to contribute photos and ‘local knowledge’ of flooding events.


At the end of the event each participant was given a feedback form. The data was analysed by the team to evaluate the success and effectiveness of the event.

76% of attendees ‘strongly agreed’ that the event was useful and the remainder (24%) ‘agreed’.  71% of attendees ‘strongly agreed’ that they would like to attend another such event, 23% ‘agreed’ and 5% ‘neither agreed nor disagreed’.

One attendee commented: ‘I was inspired to think about flooding in a new way’; another: ‘Good local details and interesting questions’.


Interest in the event was very strong, with tickets selling out more than a month beforehand; the team received many emails asking them to hold another event.  The team considered the event a great success; there was a good ‘vibe’ on the night, lots of questions from the public, and great feedback given via the forms. 

Several people brought along photos of flooding they had experienced in the areas, which will supplement information on historic events, such as the flood of December 1989.  

Lots of participants signed up to be on the mailing list for the SurgeWatch website, which was visited by 300 people that week (double the normal weekly visitors). 

A great strength of the event was having a speaker from the Eastern Solent Coastal Partnership, as many insightful questions were asked about future flood defence schemes.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Accommodating everyone who wanted to come along to the event was a challenge – in terms of finding a large and suitable pub venue.  The largest available room (55-capacity), though separate from the rest of the pub, was still a bit noisy for everyone to listen and engage fully.

In light of audience feedback, having fewer speakers and factoring in some practice time with the other presenters would be beneficial.

Legacy & future plans

Following the success of this project, the team organised similar engagement events in Cowes IoW, Southampton and Christchurch, to further embed public engagement within their research culture.  Since the project, the team have secured £30,000 of funding from NERC for a collaborative public engagement project with Manchester Metropolitan University, around ’soft’ coastal management.

Development of the SurgeWatch website continues. We have extended the dataset back further in time and now have almost 1,000 coastal flood events over the last 2,000 years. The website has been viewed ~150,000 times by people in 190 countries.

Based on this work, Ivan Haigh was recently commissioned by the Environment Agency (EA) and SCOPAC (an influential network of local authorities and organisations that share an interest in the management of the southern English coast) to undertaken two detailed studies, looking at improving understanding and management of flooding across the central south coast. In the first study, Ivan helped characterise different types of coastal flood to inform the EA’s Flood Major Incident Plan. In the second study, Ivan helped assess how unusual the substantial flooding that occurred along the south coast in the winters of 2013/14 and 2014/15 was, in the longer-term context. The aim was to provide practical information sources for engineers and a broad range of stakeholders.

Ivan also lead the United Kingdom Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) report on coastal flooding .

These activities have played an important part in Ivan’s REF2020 Imact case study: ‘RisingTide: Informing management, planning and policy on acceleration of sea level rise, increased coastal flooding and changes in tide’.

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