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Research project

UPSURGE: Helping storm surge barriers prepare for climate changeship

Project overview

Today there are more than 20 large surge barriers (and many smaller ones) in operation providing flood protection to millions of people and trillions of pounds of infrastructure in coastal cities. A storm surge barrier is a fully or partly movable barrier that is signalled to close prior to a storm to prevent a storm tide (i.e., storm surge plus high astronomical tide) from flooding an area behind the barrier. The barrier can subsequently be reopened to facilitate transport of goods and boats and allow natural movement of tides. Although surge barriers are expensive to build and maintain (e.g., the Thames Barrier which protects London from flooding cost £534 million to build at the time, £1.6 billion at today’s prices), they offer attractive and economical solutions for establishing new and/or improved flood protection in densely populated coastal areas with long exposed coastlines (e.g., estuaries or large bays), where space is limited.

The overall aim of this fellowship is to provide guidance and tools that will help storm surge barrier operators better prepare for the impacts of climate change, across every area of their operation now and into the future. With accelerating rates of sea-level rise being observed, and changes in the frequency and intensity of storms, surge barriers are starting to have to close more and more frequently, and will increasingly be required to do so in the future, which has critical implications for barrier operation, maintenance and management.

In this fellowship I will deeply embed myself with the relevant teams in two key organisations that together operate and manage 16 surge barriers in the UK and Netherlands, namely the Environment Agency (EA) and Rijkswaterstaat. I will also work closely with I-STORM, an international knowledge sharing network for professionals relating to the management, operation and maintenance of storm surge barriers, and has representation from all the surge barriers worldwide. This will ensure the work undertaken can benefit all the existing (and planned) barriers around the world.

By deeply imbedding myself with the relevant teams in the EA and Rijkswaterstaat, and regularly interacting with other barrier operators via I-STORM, I will develop a comprehensive whole system understanding of surge barriers, with the goal of addressing the following four specific objectives:

01. Systematically document and characterise the full range of different ways climate change could impact on the management, operation, integrity/reliability, maintenance, projected lifespan and future upgrade/replacement planning of surge barriers;

02. Establish a framework that will make it easier for barrier operators to monitor and assess in real time how sea levels (and other relevant climate related variables) have changing in the vicinity of different surge barriers, quantify how this has impacted the number of closures over time and assess how this in turn has affected barrier operation/maintenance to date;

03. Create a flexible software tool that will allow operators to easily and accurately estimate the likely future number of closures for any barrier, any given climate change projection and closure matrix, whilst accounting for forecasting errors, in order to guide future management and upgrade/replacement adaptive planning; and

04. Distil the lessons learnt from O1 to O3 into a series of policy guidance statements, with accompanying software tools, that will provide potential strategies that will help storm surge barrier operators worldwide to adapt their operation, maintenance and management to account for SLR, and the other impacts of climate change.


Lead researcher

Professor Ivan Haigh


Research interests

  • I have four main areas of research, as follows:
  • Mean Sea level: local, regional and global trends, detection of accelerations, understanding of inter-annual variability
  • Extreme sea levels and coastal Flooding: Changes in storm surges, extreme value analysis, compound events,

Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

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