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Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

SMMI Student highlight - Sunke Trace-Kleeberg: Fighting flooding in the face of climate change with big data analysis

Published: 11 April 2024
Sunke Trace-Kleeberg
Sunke Trace-Kleeberg at the Eastern Scheldt in the Netherlands

We caught up recently with Sunke Trace-Kleeberg, a third year PhD student sponsored by the SMMI, INSPIRE and Dutch government, to find out about her research and some of the activities she’s been involved in.

Sunke is investigating the impact of climate change on the management, maintenance, and operation of storm surge barriers, which protect populations around the globe from flooding. She has a background is in oceanography, having graduated from the University of Southampton in 2019 with a first-class Masters in Oceanography.

Among other activities, Sunke was invited to give this year’s John Sargent Lecture at the Institution of Civil Engineers, speaking about “the role of storm surge barriers in coastal flood protection”.

Sunke shared some insights with us around the importance of her research, and some of her experiences and successes during her PhD:

“Storm surge barriers provide protection against coastal flooding. These huge assets have moveable gates which can be closed temporarily to hold back storms and high tides, protecting people and property behind from flooding. As sea-levels rise, the number of flooding events will increase, meaning these defences will be called into action more often. Until now, research has focused on how increasing closures will affect barrier lifespan and the health of the estuary. However, what has not yet been addressed is the impact on maintainability.

So far, my work has focused on the occurrences where water levels are too high for maintenance work to be carried out. Using a cast study barrier, I analysed when maintenance would have been interrupted due to unsafe water levels in the past and how, under different sea-level rise scenarios, it could occur in the future. My findings show that unless changes are made, the barrier will not reach its design life. This work was published last summer in Coastal Engineering and can be read open access here.

I am currently focusing on evaluating a forecast model which gives a decision on whether the water levels of the coming days are safe for maintenance work to be carried out or not. This will allow teams at the barrier to increase the amount of time they can safely carry out maintenance work.

Sunke giving the John Sargent Lecture in March 2024
Sunke giving the John Sargent Lecture in March 2024

Aligned with my PhD research, I have participated in a number of conferences. In my first year I attended the Young Coastal Scientists and Engineers Conference in Bournemouth which was a very friendly setting to talk about my plans for the PhD project. Last summer I went to The International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) conference in Berlin and gave a talk on the findings from my first research paper. I have also been heavily involved with I-STORM since the beginning of my PhD. This is an international knowledge sharing network bringing together people from around the world who work at, or with, storm surge barriers. I am part of NextGen, a group of members working to make sure that the network stays resilient into the future as long-standing members leave or retire. I am also involved in the I-STORM Academy, an initiative set up to increase knowledge retention within the network.  I am passionate about sharing my research with wider audiences and was very excited to be able to write an article on storm surge barriers for The Conversation . I delivered this year’s John Sargent Lecture , hosted by the Institution of Civil Engineers, speaking on Silent guardians: the role of storm surge barriers in coastal flood protection (Tuesday, 12 March 2024, watch the recording ).

Receiving the Most Innovative Poster award at the Doctoral Research Poster Showcase
Receiving the Most Innovative Poster award

Around my PhD research, I have been involved with various outreach events. I helped at the IROE stand at the SOTSEF Science and Engineering Day in 2023, which I enjoyed so much that this year I led my own activity . Together with other PhD students, we created a series of videos and hosted a stand on how taking the ocean’s temperature has evolved over time - from the first funded oceanographic expedition of the HMS Challenger in 1872 to the modern robotic sensors currently in operation. I entered the University of Southampton’s 3-minute thesis competition and was proud to win the Faculty of Environmental and Life Science heat. I also submitted a poster to the Doctoral Research Poster Showcase in December 2023 and was very pleased to win the Most Innovative Poster award. Through the INSPIRE DTP, I received funding to complete a three-month research placement at the University of Hamburg in Germany. During my time there, I analysed long term underwater observation data from instruments that are deployed in the Denmark Strait, the passage between Iceland and Greenland.

Sunke Trace-Kleeberg’ s PhD project is supervised by Professor Ivan Haigh, School of Ocean and Earth Science , Professor Susan Gourvenec, School of Engineering , and Marc Walraven from Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. She is co-funded by INSPIRE DTP, the SMMI and Rijkswaterstaat.

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