In an effort to provide greater understanding of flood trends in the UK, the University of Southampton has launched Surgewatch, an online database ranking the most severe coastal storms since 1914. Surgewatch maps 96 storms that generated high sea levels somewhere along the UK coast.
Dr Ivan Haigh, lead author and lecturer in Coastal Oceanography at the University of Southampton tells Geographical,‘we used tide gauge records going back to 1915, with meteorological data to identify times over the last 100 years when very high sea levels had been reached.’ This was used to help track each storm’s progress across the UK. ‘We then used these dates as a reference and spent many thousands of hours reading old reports, books, news articles, blogs and web-sites to estimate the extent and scale of the coastal flooding.’ The data was collated by scientists at the National Oceanography Centre and the British Oceanographic Data Centre.
The largest flood event occurred in last year’s storm surge, in fact, seven of the 96 events happened during that small period. While it is not difficult to recall the images of colossal waves hitting the coast of southwest England, the reports of thousands of homes without power and streets lined with sandbags, it is thanks to contemporary coastal defences that the impact was not more extreme.
‘While there is evidence that the number of high sea levels are increasing,’ explains Haigh, ‘the actual instances of coastal flooding has reduced slightly, because of improvements in coastal flood defences, forecasting and warning signs.’ The storm of 1953, though smaller than last year’s surge, killed over three hundred people. ‘The fact that the 2013–14 damage was so limited compared to the tragedy of 1953 is thanks to significant government investment in coastal defences, flood forecasting and sea-level monitoring.’