Yesterday morning, 5:40 am, I was woken by the shrill ring of my phone. Grave family news? No.
“This is the Environment Agency . . .” There followed a Red Alert Flood Warning. At 5:40 am my head isn’t fully functioning, and the message is deliberately worded to catch the attention and force awareness.
Next stop, their website. What, precisely, was the situation? Oh, it wasn’t just a particularly high tide. It was a North Sea Surge.
North Sea Surges are not a feature of rising sea levels due to recent climatic changes. They have been occurring at least since 1099.
“Also this year, on the Feast of St Martin [November 11] the tide rose so strongly and did so much damage as no-one remembered it ever did before . . .”
Studies done by the School of Environmental Studies at University of East Anglia have determined that these Surges occur on average at fifty year intervals. The Surge of 2007 was bang on schedule, the previous – said to be the worst on record – being in February 1953. But 2007, that was only six years ago. This had come too soon!
The North Sea requires a certain set of conditions before it will ‘Surge’.
- Low pressure tracking down from Scotland with accompanying high winds – gale force was predicted.
- A spring tide – these being the highest tides.
- And it helps to have rivers running high from snow-melt or high autumnal rainfall – well, we didn’t have that; it’s been a particularly dry summer, and an unexceptional autumn.
Since 1953 the sea defences have been raised to above the ’53 levels, and generally strengthened and improved. So, do your worst, North Sea, I thought. Despite I live cheek-to-jowl with the River Yare – one river, but it takes the combined flow of the Yare, Bure and Waveney – I was not too perturbed.
High tide was due at 10:00 pm. At 8:00 pm, frustrated by the lack of updates on the various news websites, I tuned-in to the local radio.
2 hours before high tide, and already the beach had disappeared. Further north along the coast, where high tide had already hit, cliffs had crumbled (we have sandy cliffs here, no rocks), and homes had tumbled into the sea. Oops. Perhaps I’d underestimated the force of the Surge. I moved my valuables to a higher place – i.e. my hundreds of books, stacking them on top of the wardrobe, chests and other tall furniture. I stuffed rags into plugholes, and weighted them down. Water can rise up through the sewers.
1 hour before high tide, and the sea-front was awash. In neighbouring Lowestoft (10 miles south along coast) the town centre was flooded. Bridges were closed. Public transport stopped. I waited.
At 10:30 pm, high tide now arrived, many areas around town were inundated, but not my side of the quay. I had escaped it!
This morning the radio gives updates on the damage. I feel for those who have lost their homes, yet their numbers are small. Travel disruption is widespread, schools are closed, but it will only be for today. And apart from one unrelated incident, there have been no deaths. For that we can thank our sturdy sea defences.
Yet imagine if we had not had those defences in place. East Norfolk would have been returned to the ‘Great Estuary’ it was when the Romans arrived in 43 A.D. On the map above the sea-line follows the 5 metres contour. Last night’s Surge peaked at over 3 metres. Yarmouth is the yellow blip surrounded by sea.
In conclusion, I say: we in Britain live a charmed existence, and I so keenly feel for those caught in environmental disasters everywhere.