Sea change


The coast is an intrinsic part of British identity – and perhaps nowhere is it more at risk than in the East of England. Cambridge researchers are working with communities and organisations across the region to manage the coast for the future, by working with nature rather than against it.

It was the worst natural disaster experienced by Britain in the 20th century. On 31 January 1953, the east coast was battered by high tides, storm surge, wind and large waves, leading to devastating flooding. In Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Lincolnshire, 307 people were killed. Nineteen were killed in Scotland, while across the North Sea in The Netherlands, 1,800 people lost their lives.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the 1953 disaster, although most would point the finger at the absence of a coordinated warning system, which meant that many communities were unaware of the imminent risk until it was too late. Coastal defences such as sea walls had not been properly maintained or were not equipped to deal with the ferocity of the conditions that night.

In the aftermath of the 1953 flooding, major improvements were made and the UK now has one of the best storm forecasting systems in the world. Existing coastal defences were improved, and new ones like the Thames Barrier were built.

The Thames Barrier is an example of a ‘hard’ coastal defence: in many parts of the country, such as where there is important infrastructure or a major population centre, this is the most appropriate protection against rising tides or storms.

But for a country whose cultural and historical identity is so closely associated with the sea, are large concrete or metal barriers always the best defence? And – less romantically – given the enormous financial cost of these defences, are there other effective and sustainable methods we could consider?

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Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

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