Posted in | Sustainability

Researchers Explore Acceleration of Sea-Level Rise to Upgrade UK Coastal Flood Defenses

South view of the Thames Barrier taken on 12 October 2008. (Copyright James Campbell.)

A new research project will investigate the speed at which sea level is rising, as well as the time needed to improve coastal flood defense infrastructure, such as the Thames Barrier. The E-Rise project is led by the University of Southampton, in collaboration with the National Oceanography Centre.

The project will be focus on developing a better understanding of the potential lead times for improving or replacing UK’s coastal defense infrastructure during the 21st century. It will also evaluate whether it would be possible to detect sea-level accelerations in advance to provide adequate lead time for action.

There is strong observational evidence that global mean sea-levels are rising and the rate of rise is predicted to accelerate, significantly threatening hundreds of billions of pounds of infrastructure around the UK coast. Substantial upgrades or replacements to coastal defenses will therefore be required to maintain existing flood risk management standards.

Ivan Haigh, Associate Professor, Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton

Professor Robert Nicholls, from Engineering in the Environment at the University of Southampton, adds: “Upgrading coastal flood defence infrastructure will involve long lead times relating to both planning (time to obtain the financial and political support to carry out the upgrade or replacement) and implementation (time to source the company and materials to carry out the work) of schemes. For example, plans for building the Thames Barrier were started soon after the notorious 1953 North Sea flood, but the Barrier was not operational until 1982 – nearly 30 years later! It is therefore very important that we understanding likely lead times for upgrading/replacing coastal defense infrastructure around the UK.”

The issue of sea-level acceleration is particularly important, as rapid rates of rise will reduce the lead time available for upgrading/replacing defense infrastructure. Moreover, detecting accelerations in the rate of sea-level rise is complicated because of the considerable inter-annual variability evident in sea level at regional/local scales, which ‘swamps’ the smaller underlying acceleration signal. This project will assess whether we could detect sea-level accelerations earlier by removing known sources of variability to provide sufficient lead time for action.

Dr Francisco Calafat, National Oceanography Centre

The project’s stakeholders include the Environment Agency and EDF Energy.

Katy Francis from the Environment Agency’s Thames Estuary 2100 Team, said: “With the rate of sea-level rise increasing due to climate change, coastal flood defense infrastructure around parts of the UK will need to be upgraded or replaced. We are excited to be partnering with the world leading experts at the University of Southampton and National Oceanography Centre in this field of research, and hope the results of their research will enable us to detect sea-level accelerations earlier to provide more time for action.”

E-Rise is a one-year project financially supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) as part of the Environmental Risks to Infrastructure Innovation Programme.

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