This week we welcome another 10 Engineering in the Coastal Environment and 7 Coastal and Marine Engineering and Management students to Southampton. Hope you have a great year!
The city of Plymouth, on England’s south coast, normally has fairly moderate tides. However this week it will have a 6m “supertide” – the highest tide in 18 years. This comes just days after the celebrated “supermoon”.
In fact, many locations along the UK, US and Australian coasts will experience their highest tides for tens of years around September 29 or 30. Coastal roads in Miami, for instance, have already been closed in anticipation of exceptional tides.
These high tides may bring water levels uncomfortably close to the tops of harbour walks and flood defences, emphasising the threat of rising sea levels. In the UK they are unlikely to be a major problem on their own unless they coincide with storms (a strong storm surge has a greater impact than even the most exotic of tides). However in other areas, like in parts of America and the Pacific, no storms are necessary: these high tides on their own can lead to nuisance flooding.
Why do we expect such extreme tides?
Tides are controlled by changes in the position and alignment of the moon and sun relative to Earth. Every fortnight – at new moon or full moon – the Earth, sun and moon are in an approximately straight line as seen from space and the additional gravitational pull of the sun causes stronger tides, known as spring tides.
Yet each month one set of spring tides is higher than the other. This is because tidal forces are strengthened when the moon is at “perigee” and its elliptical orbit takes it closest to Earth. Tide-generating forces are also enhanced when the moon is directly overhead at the equator, part of a cycle lasting 27.2 days – a so-called “draconic month”.
Tides can differ over the course of a year, as the Earth moves from its closest (perihelion) to furthest (aphelion) point from the sun and back. More important is the variation in the sun’s position north or south of the equator, which causes the seasons. The tide-generating forces are greatest at the equinoxes in March and September when the sun is directly overhead at the equator. Spring tides are always higher at these times of year.
A perfect tide?
Over periods longer than a year, very large spring tides occur when all the astronomical factors we have mentioned earlier coincide.
Two longer-term motions of the moon’s orbit around the Earth are important. These motions (astronomers call them precessions) are the reason we are seeing unusually large spring tides this year.
The first precession is known as the cycle of lunar perigee, and influences tides about every four to five years. The elliptical orbit of the moon around the Earth slowly moves in relation to the sun, completing a full circuit every 8.8 years. This means at either the March or September equinox approximately every 4.5 years the moon is both at its closest point to the Earth, and is also overhead at the equator.
The second precession is known as the lunar nodal cycle and is due to a very slow change in the moon’s orbit. Imagine the Earth’s orbit around the sun took place on an enormous sheet of glass – what astronomers call the ecliptic plane. The moon’s orbit cuts this surface at an angle of approximately 5 degrees. Over 18.6 years the moon’s orbit slowly rotates around so it cuts through the ecliptic plane in a different place.
One effect of this is to change how far above or below the equator the moon can reach in its orbit. In 2015 the moon is at the point where it deviates the least from the equator. This slightly increases the chances of the moon being directly overhead at the equator at any given point, and thus coinciding with the other factors that contribute to extreme tidal forces.
A lot of things have to fall in place at once to generate record-breaking tides and this year the cycle of lunar perigee and the lunar nodal cycle nearly perfectly coincide, resulting in some of the highest spring tides for decades.
The authors help run the SurgeWatch website and would welcome any photos of high tides during this period.
This year we celebrate our 20th birthday at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). I still remember very clearly the first time I visited NOC in 1997 on a open day. I was captivated walking into the building and knew that one day I would have to work here.
Some statistics in the 20 year history:
- We have graduated 481 PhD students since moving to the Centre in 1995;
- We have published 9,801 papers with the SO14 3ZH post code since 1995 and these have attracted 107,573 citations.
Extreme storms and rising sea levels will threaten the existence of coastal cities worldwide, unless preventative action is undertaken. With population growth and sea-level rise set to continue, research has estimated that by 2050, we can expect more than US$1 trillion worth of damages per year to be incurred by 136 of the world’s largest cities, if there is no attempt to adapt.
The game changer came in 2005, when we saw one of the most active hurricane seasons in US history. Hurricane Katrina, the fifth hurricane of that season, resulted in nearly 1,600 deaths. Almost half of these fatalities occurred in New Orleans: 80% of the city was flooded, at a cost of US$40 billion. When the water subsided, so did the population: ten years on, the city that used to house 500,000 is now home to only 300,000 people.
There are a number of ways to go about changing cities to account for rising sea levels: we can raise coastal defences, build houses on stilts, or simply move cities and their populations away from the coast. Which of these strategies works best was one of many questions set out in Climate Change: A Risk Assessment – a new report led by Sir David King and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Globally, sea levels have been remarkably stable since civilisation started to develop several thousand years ago. During the 20th century, sea levels rose about 17cm, at an average rate of 1.8mm per year. Over the past few decades, that rate has doubled to more than 3mm per year. This trend is expected to continue and accelerate. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the sea level is projected to rise up to 1m by 2100. If the large ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica melted, even higher rises are considered possible, albeit highly uncertain.
Importantly, if carbon emissions are stabilised, or even decrease, the sea level will continue to rise for many centuries, as the deep ocean slowly warms and the large ice sheets reach a new equilibrium. Simply put, sea-level rise is here to stay. It is likely to lead to greater flooding, salinisation (the build up of salt in surface and groundwater) and erosion in coastal areas, affecting millions of people worldwide and costing billions of dollars of damage.
The high costs of economic damage and loss of life are becoming less acceptable in a world where extreme weather events can be accurately forecast and coastal protection is possible. In many parts of the world, damages and loss of life remain high, as seen during Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013. Preparing coastal cities for extreme events and adapting them to cope with sea-level rise remains challenging: King’s report highlights the engineering, financial and socio-political limits of the adaptation challenge.
But cities are starting to embrace these challenges. For example, last year, Boston put forward the bold, novel idea of becoming an American Venice – a city full of canals to hold water as sea levels rise. New York has considered building a barrier to keep water out, in light of the fact that, with a 1m rise in the sea level, a 1-in-100 year event (that is, a severe storm one would expect to occur once every 100 years) could become 200 times more likely to occur.
London has also developed a range of flexible options that would protect the Thames Estuary against up to 5m of sea-level rise. These include raising defences, implementing flood storage and constructing a new and bigger Thames Barrier further downstream.
Developing better cities
In developing countries, few cities are preparing for sea-level rise, despite the awareness that this is a long-term hazard. Developing cities also frequently have rapid population growth. In Shanghai and Kolkata more than 400,000 people live less than 2m above the present-day sea level. A rise of 1m will increase the frequency of a current 1-in-100 year event by 40 times in Shanghai, and about 1,000 times in Kolkata.
Local ground subsidence is another factor to worry about. This involves the sinking of the land relative to the sea due to natural and sometimes human processes (such as groundwater withdrawal). Local ground subsidence will worsen conditions in about a quarter of coastal cities – namely, those built on susceptible deltaic soils (those at the mouth of a river).
Small islands and their cities are also under serious threat from sea-level rise as they are low-lying, remote and dispersed in their territories, and often have limited financial resources. Far from being a green, spacious island, Malé – the capital of the Maldives – is one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Building protective structures is one way of reducing the impacts of extreme events: Malé is surrounded by a sea wall and giant tetrapods (a four-pronged concentrate structure about 2m high). But a lack of space limits future coastal protection.
To overcome this, a new island has been constructed, Hulhumalé, with sea-level rise also in mind. The solution to sea-level rise is simply to build upwards: The island was raised to 2m above present day sea level to protect against storms. This buys time, but moving into the late 21st or early 22nd century this may not be enough. Other Maldivian islands are following suit, with the Safer Islands programme selectively raising parts of islands. This may help the parts of the country, but clearly much more work is required to ensure the long-term prospects of this fragile island nation.
Ultimately, these case studies show us that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to adapting cities to rising sea levels. Rather, the best bet for cities to adapt against rising sea levels is to dare to be different. Both engineering design, government authorities and social attitudes must acknowledge that change needs to occur, if we’re to avoid disaster.
Sally Brown, Research Fellow, University of Southampton; Ivan Haigh, Lecturer in Coastal Oceanography, University of Southampton, and Robert Nicholls, Professor of Coastal Engineering, University of Southampton
My last post was on the 4th January 2014 – almost 9 months ago! The year has been a very busy one for me so far, but that I know is not a good excuse for my lack of posts. Anyway I am back, feeling refreshed have a months holiday. One of the highlights of my holiday was building sea creatures on the beach at New Quay, Wales.
I hope to post more regularly in the coming weeks and months. For a fresh start I have also changed the design of the web site – hope you like it.