This post was inspired by a comment on the recent blog on storm Sandy.

Sea defences at Sea Palling, Norfolk

Sea defences at Sea Palling, Norfolk.

Replying to that post, a commenter suggested we point out that, although the North Sea Flood of 1953 was the worst coastal flood catastrophe in the UK, there was a storm in 1978 where the sea level along parts of the east coast was actually higher. For example, a height of 5.92m was recorded in King’s Lynn in 1976, compared with 5.65m in 1953).

The 1953 event was arguably the worst natural disaster in northern Europe in the last 200 years. In one night, 307 people in eastern England died, with a further 1836 fatalities in the Netherlands. There have been a number of large surges in the North Sea since, but
none have been so devastating.

West Germany suffered severe damage from an unexpected storm surge in 1962. Like
the 1953 storm, the sea levels were higher than predicted. 315 people died in Hamburg. It led to major improvements in coastal defences – new dykes were constructed and existing ones built up. An even larger storm hit the same stretch of coast in 1976. However, the improved sea defences meant that there was only minor damage.

The storm of 12 January 1978 mentioned by our anonymous commenter caused extensive flooding and damage along the east coast of England from the Humber to Kent. London only narrowly escaped flooding – floodgates built in 1972 to protect the docks were closed for the first time (the Thames flood barrier was completed in 1982). The storm was created by a similar combination of spring tides and a major storm surge driven by easterly winds from a low pressure system in the North Sea. However, flood defences, warning systems and evacuation plans put in place after 1953 were successful and there were no casualties. Also, the storm surge, although higher than 1953 in places,
was actually lower than predicted (the 1953 surge had been higher than forecast).

On 9 November 2007, the UK’s North Sea coast experienced another massive storm surge. Like 1978, damage was slight, due to improved coastal defences (only one sea wall, in Walcott, Norfolk, was inundated) and the surge being lower than predicted.

In a future post, we’ll go into more detail about the difference between a storm surge and a high tide.