Wildside: Coastal storm surge has many unseen impacts

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Flooding history is a topic of great interest to me. Indeed, the surprising thing about the history of floods is that we should not be surprised when they happen.

In my research on flooding across the UK but especially in our region, one form of event I have raised concerns about is a coastal tidal surge. This is in effect, when the winds blow down the North Sea from the Arctic and coincide with a series of naturally high tides (depending for their severity on annual and monthly cycles).

If all the factors align correctly, then water is pushed down the North Sea towards the bottleneck of the Dover-Calais part of the English Channel. The water cannot escape quickly enough and consequently builds up all along the eastern seaboard of England and the western seaboard of the Low Countries. Essentially, it has to go somewhere.

This is what we experienced a few weeks back along with continuing stormy weather. Again, whatever the cause (probably part natural and part human-induced), our storm events are getting more severe and ferocious weather is both more intense and more frequent. Of course, our corporate habits then of building on floodplains and in vulnerable coastal areas, put property and people in increasingly risky situations.

The worst-case scenario is if we get a storm such as we experienced in Sheffield in June 2007, at the same time as a major coastal surge like November 2007 or December 2013. In that case, I do not recommend living in say, Hull!

I have just been down for a few days in north Norfolk, where the impact of the surge is still visible along the shorelines of the Wash.

Great sections of the sand dunes have been ripped away, and high up the beach and beyond, debris still shows where the waters reached. Along the whole region, it seems like all the natural and human litter of the region has been gathered up and dumped along this extra-high tide-line, strewn with cans, bottles, polystyrene, timber and wood. The vegetation pulled out from the battered dunes has been cast up along this exposed coastal zone. In one of the sand creeks, I found a lone baby common seal. Probably this pup was born a month or more ago and I fear for its safety. I wondered if the youngster and its mother had been separated by the chaos of the surge.

There was no sign of mum anywhere. Maybe she had gone off to feed and would soon return, but I confess to feeling very uncertain. Close by too, another maybe slightly younger pup, lay dead with its eyes pecked out by the local carrion crows. I hope this was not the fate awaiting this baby.

n Professor Ian D Rotherham, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues, is contactable on ianonthewildside@ukeconet.co.uk; follow Ian’s Walk on the Wildside, www.ukeconet.org for more information.