1953 storm surge: how Britain’s worst natural disaster kicked off the debate on climate change

By Matthew Kelly, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Towns and villages along the east coast of England were put on red alert on Friday 13 January. A combination of strong winds and high tides led to fears a “storm surge” would wash over flood defences, and residents of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk and Jaywick, in Essex, were among those ordered to evacuate.

In the end, the worst was avoided. The winds, tides and waves didn’t quite combine to cause serious flooding, and people have returned home. But this was not the first time the region had been threatened with inundation, and the flood defences that held firm in 2017 were largely built in response to a previous, more deadly, storm surge.

The worst natural disaster in modern British history occurred on the night of January 31, 1953. A tidal surge caused the North Sea to rise up to five metres above its average level, which led to widespread flooding along the east coast of Britain, particularly south of Yorkshire. Some 30,000 people were evacuated, 1,000 square kilometres of land was inundated, and 307 people in England and 19 people in Scotland died. The death toll was particularly bad on Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary.

In the low-lying Netherlands the consequences were much greater – more than 1,800 deaths. Soon after, the Dutch began to construct their huge and very costly system of flood defences.

The response in Britain was less decisive. Former chancellor and home secretary Viscount Waverley oversaw an inquiry, publishing a very effective report later that year. Waverley sought expert opinion on how best to renew flood defences and his recommendations included the creation of a new early warning system, quickly established, and the construction of a retractable barrier to protect London.

The long political machinations that eventually led to the passage of the 1972 Thames Barrier Act are fascinating in themselves, but what is more immediately arresting is the explanation Waverley offered for the tidal surge itself. For the first time, Waverley’s report made climate change a concern of government.

What caused the storm surge

Waverley explained that the flooding was caused by a combination of factors. Strong northerly winds coming in off the Atlantic coincided with a relatively high tide, thereby forcing an unusually large quantity of water down the narrowing north-south axis of the North Sea to the bottleneck at the Straits of Dover. The rotation of the earth ensured that the water was deflected to the west of the tidal currents, thereby hitting the east coast of Britain. A significant quantity of excess water was forced up the Thames Estuary, threatening to spill over London’s flood defences.

Waverley was at pains to point out that the high tide and the surge were distinct phenomena. Had the surge occurred at low tide, its effect would have been little noticed. Also, inland rainfall had been below average. Had east coast rivers been at their strongest, the destruction caused by the tidal surge would have been much greater, causing significant loss of life and damage to the capital’s infrastructure. Indeed, the risk to the London Underground conditioned much of the debate that followed.

The data presented to Waverley suggested that floods like January 1953 were becoming more frequent and that the combination of factors that produced them were likely to happen more often. There were three reasons for this. First, water levels were rising. By the 1950s scientists had known for a generation or so that the climate had been warming for a century, and that this was causing glaciers to melt.

Second, the phenomenon of tilt: the north-west and north of England was gradually rising and the south-east was gradually sinking – or downwarping – a notion that had some popular traction, especially in East Anglia. Downwarping compounded the effect of higher water levels and was also caused by climate change. At the end of the last ice age, glaciation had reached as far south as the line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash. With the weight of ice no longer acting on northern Britain, a gradual correction was taking place – and continues to.

Third, was the idea that changing weather patterns made tidal surges more likely. Sou’westerlies dominated the weather patterns of the region, but strong northerlies were becoming more prevalent, possibly as part of a 200-year cycle. For all these reasons the east coast, and London particularly, faced an increasing threat from the North Sea.

Natural climate change?

Thanks to Waverley, this thinking held sway in Whitehall in the decades that followed, shaping the tortuous process that led to the construction of the Thames Barrier. But if climate change was understood to be a factor in the growing threat to the east coast, there was little suggestion that any of it was caused by human activities. Instead, scientists pointed to the shift in and out of ice ages that occurs naturally over many thousands of years. Climate change, considered a force of nature, had yet to be politicised, even as it became a factor in policy making.

The threat climate change poses a given population depends as much on the capacity of the state to build adequate defences as it does on geographical good fortune. The debate of the 1950s and 60s also throws into sharp relief how politically significant anthropogenic notions of climate change have become.

Then, it was a question of defending vulnerable people and infrastructure against apparently natural phenomena, now the question of causation has hugely complicated and politicised possible government responses. This raises profound questions about environmental justice at both a national and global level. As the terrible flood of 1953 and recent events throughout the world have shown, it is poor, marginal people who drown in floods, whether in Britain or elsewhere.

The ConversationMatthew Kelly, Professor of Modern History, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My top ten tweets of 2016

So here are my top ten tweets of 2016, ranked by the number of times it was seen on Twitter.

In 10th, 9th, 8th and 7th position are some random tweets of photographs taken in various branches of WHSmith.

These tweets were re-tweeted by the amusing @WHS_Carpet Twitter account. If like me you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, WHSMith was a real high street institution, which though surviving today still seems to have lost its way somewhat.

My 6th most popular tweet was an image comic strip of a Dara O’Briain routine on video games.

I was surprised by how popular the 5th tweet was, which was about some great images from JD Hancock on the Flickr.

A reply to Google was number four.

I was disappointed that NERC did not name their boat BoatyMcBoatface, but I did like how they embraced the whole thing, as I said in my third most popular tweet.

A work tweet was number two…

And my most popular tweet of 2016 was a silly comment for #WednesdayWisdom

Changes at the railway station

Though I am more likely to spend time at Worle station, I have been known to catch trains from the main station in Weston-super-Mare. Despite being a smallish town, Weston has three railway stations. The main station which opened in 1884 replacing the original station which opened in 1841. Weston Milton opened in 1933, a small halt to serve the then expanding Milton area. Worle station was opened in 1990 and unlike the other two stations, which are on the Weston loop, Worle is on the main Bristol to Plymouth line.

Over the years the railway station at Weston-super-Mare, well in terms of tracks, has changed quite a bit, even if the buildings and platforms have remained as much as they have since the line was built. This photograph from the local paper reminded me of how much has changed.

Weston-super-Mare Railway Station

Back then there was an up and down line on the Weston loop. There was also multiple sidings for good and carriages. I suspect a lot of the coal wagons for the local gas works were stored there awaiting return to the Welsh collieries.

By the late 1970s (the BR HST is still in blue and grey), when this image was taken on 28th March 1978, most of the sidings have now been taken away and replaced with a coach park. Lots of visitors to Weston-super-Mare were now coming by coach. The light brown building on the right of the photograph in the background is the Odeon cinema which is still there today, but Weston is getting it’s own multiplex at Dolphin Square.

Weston-super-Mare Railway Station Copyright Roger Winnen

You can see a lot of the points had been removed too.

By the time of this Google Street View image, the sidings have all been removed and replaced with a Tesco store and car park (which was the focus of the story in the local paper). Hildesheim Bridge was built in 1991 and crosses the eastern end of the platforms.

Weston-super-Mare Railway Station

Hildesheim is the German town which Weston is twinned with.

Change happens and over the next few years I suspect we will see more change.

Ten amazing sand sculptures

Here are ten of my favourite sculptures from this year’s Sand Sculptures at Weston-super-Mare. This year’s theme was “when I grow up…” and there was a range of sculptures that were inspired by this theme. Click the image for larger versions.

So who wanted to be a firefighter when they grew up? So there are the fires, the hoses and the water.

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If I found these surgeons looking over me, just about to go under a general anaesthetic, I would be feeling rather scared. These are rather freaky.

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Now who wants to go to the moon? Astronauts are often a childhood dream. This sculpture was really tall and I was impressed with the height of the thing, and the nice details, like the chimpanzee looking out of the window of the rocket.

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A rather depressed farmer looks after his crops and a sullen cow. Maybe its’ the sand, but he does look sad. The sculpture was rather flat, and it was quite effective.

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No this wasn’t about someone growing up to be a Pharaoh or even an Egyptian god, no this was about growing up to be an archaeologist, you can see the little figures in the sand.

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I think this was a vet, or someone wanting to be a mad scientist growing over sized dogs.

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Lots of young people want to be professional footballers.

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Tut, tut, construction worker stereotype!

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This was just plain freaky! No idea what it was supposed to represent.

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Yes, we can all grow up to be superman! To infinity and beyond… oh wait!

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I am always impressed with the quality and the ideas of the sculptures.

“The Old New World”

Wonderfully clever photo based animation of American from the early 20th Century.

Each image required the creator to remove the moving and static elements to create a 3D model for the animations. Once completed, he began the second stage: creation of full computer graphics of various animals, people, vehicles, and other relevant details.

Lovely stuff