Tag Archives: estuary

Hurricane in the Humber : Modelling the Unthinkable

We’ve all been stunned by the images of Hurricane Matthew tearing through the southern States of the east coast of the USA, and the footage of the resulting storm surge sweeping into these coastal areas. We should not forget Haiti and the carnage once again unleashed on this nation, and the ongoing struggles the people will have there for years to come. The power of nature can simultaneously be awe inspiring and horrendously destructive.

In the UK we are relatively blessed in our sheltered position from natural disasters – it is difficult to imagine just what it is like as a nation to suffer an event on this magnitude, just as we could scarcely imagine what the impact of an earthquake or a volcano might be. But what if the unthinkable did happen? What if Hurricane Matthew did hit the UK with the full force of a Category 4 or 5 storm? How would the storm surge look like?

My research involves using numerical (computer) models to understand how nature works, in particular the movements of water. In the past I have used these models to simulate the workings of the Humber Estuary, UK, and some of that work includes simulating “worst case scenarios”. Before the 2013 storm surge this was often thought to be equivalent of the 1953 event, but now the baseline is 2013. On December 5th 2013, a storm in the North Sea caused a storm surge of around 1.8 m to form, coinciding with a high-tide resulting in the storm tide1.

1To pose a threat a storm surge needs to coincide with a high-tide. This combination is called a storm tide. A surge which coincides with a low-tide probably will not pose a risk, and the peak water levels will usually be lower than that of a normal high-tide. This obviously depends on the size of the surge and local difference between low- and high-tides.

A category 4 or 5 hurricane hitting the Humber and the UK at that strength is way beyond our “worst case scenario”, and reveals little to us about the nature of the Humber and the state of our defences. However, simulating it does provide prospective of the scale of the event and helps us understand just how powerful and destructive they are. At St Augustine, Florida, the surge was estimated to be 2.75 m, adding this swell to the tidal sea level – looking at the surge from 2013 this is nearly 1 m greater.

The represent this in our Humber model I have done nothing more sophisticated than simply adding 1 m height to all the water level data we use to simulate the 2013 flooding. The video below shows the results – it looks pretty bad and it would be, but we need to consider some aspects of the model to fully understand what we are seeing. The model uses a smooth representation of the land surface, as in it has no buildings, walls, roads, hedges, tree etc which would stop or slow the flow of water, although it does have a representation of flood defences. This means once the water levels exceed the defences and spill over on to the land the water can just keep flowing, when in reality it would be stopped by obstacles – so the area flooded in the model is larger, yet probably shallower, than we would expect.

This is truly an unthinkable event and we would not expect a surge of 2.75 m to be seen in the Humber. However, global sea levels are rising and our best predictions suggest that the base sea level in the Humber will be around 1 m higher in 100 years time – from this point, the 1.8 m surge from the 2013 event would cause water levels of the same height as a 2.75 m surge in the present day. As our climate warms, providing more energy to the atmosphere, we can also expect our weather to become more stormy and events like 2013 will become more common. This paints a bleak picture and presents coastal areas like the Humber a major challenge for the rest of this century.

The good news is that those responsible for our flood defences are aware of this challenge and are developing their plans to help us face it. Our model is already out of date as several areas around the Humber have had their flood defences improved since 2013, and there are plans for more – this process will be continuously assessed and developed in the future to keep people and property safe. Models such as our will be used to test those plans and the contribute to designing new schemes. The challenge is great but we can meet it.

American Geoscience Union’s Fall Meeting – My Contributions

So, the many thousands of abstracts for the American Geoscience Union’s Fall Meeting have been judged, and I have been handed a Poster and an Oral Presentation spots. If you’re in San Francisco for the meeting and would like to chat about my research, just hunt me down.

Poster Presentation – 

“The Role of Spatio-Temporal Resolution of Rainfall Inputs on a Landscape Evolution Model”

Wednesday 16 December 2015 – 08:00-12:20

EP31B: Landscape Evolution from a Critical Zone Science Perspective I Posters

Moscone South, Poster Hall

Oral Presentation –

“Humber-in-a-Box : Gamification to Communicate Coastal Flood Risk in the Face of Rising Seas”

Friday 18 December 2015 – 14:10-14:25

ED53F: Amazing Games and Superb Simulations for Science Education II

Moscone South, 303

I’m really looking forward to getting out there and showing off my research to the biggest event in our circles. I’m also really excited about talking about Humber-in-a-Box for the first time too, and seeing all of the other presentations in the Amazing Games session.

Hope to see you there!

Hurst Spit and Spurn Point

Those who have read some of my previous blog posts, both here and on GEES-ology, will know I have an interest in Spurn Point, a spit at the Mouth of the Humber. This post in particular details the breaching of the Spurn defences after the 5th December 2013 storm surge.

I was really interested then when my Mother-in-Law sent me pictures of some old public notice boards they found in Portsmouth. They provide information about Hurst Spit which, reading the boards, seems to be similar to Spurn Point and at the Mouth of the Solent.

P1010176P1010177 P1010178 P1010179 P1010180 P1010181

Some of the ideas about how it formed seem very similar to George De Boer’s ideas for the formation, and future, of Spurn. A similar storm even caused a very familiar looking breach in 1989. However, unlike Spurn Point, there seemed to be a will and a plan to maintain the structure there.

I think this is definitely one to look at further to see if any parallels can be drawn.

Thanks to Bev for the pics!

Day out on the Holderness Coast, Spurn Point and the Humber

A couple of weeks ago Tom took his new PhD student, Chloe Morris, out around the East Riding Coast and the Humber to scout out potential future field sites – I was invited to tag along, so I did. Chloe has joined us, working with the Environment Agency and the British Geological Society, to advance the work myself and others have done with Dynamic Humber in trying to understand how the future of the Humber is linked with the future of the Holderness Coast – people seem t be surprised to find that the sediment in the Humber predominantly comes from the coast and not from the rivers.

.South of WithernseaIMG_3807

The first stop was Withernsea. The photo above shows Tom and Chloe looking over the southern extent of the hard defences for the town – the cliff beyond has eroded several metres back from the line of this defence. The Holderness Coast is often said to be the fastest eroding coastline in Europe, as the till left behind by glaciers as the last ice age ended is broken up and washed away by waves and storms.

From Withernsea, and all along the coast you get a view of vast offshore windfarms being built in the North Sea.


Roads and paths that just disappear over cliff are a common sight, as are more of the offshore windfarms.


Further down the coast you get a sense of the history that gets lost to the sea. There are dozens of towns and villages that appear on maps and in records that are no longer there, but here it is second World War military defence structures being broken up and washed away. I think it is a real shame that we are losing these.


No trip around this area would be complete without visiting Spurn. This is a most interesting and dynamic site and there is a lot of potential for interesting science to be done here. The photos above were taken six months apart, the left in November 2014, and right on our trip, May 2015. The sign is valiantly holding on, but the area looks to have lost some height and the ground is visibly more pebbly.


Again, the two photos above were taken six months apart on the same dates as the road sign. In November there was a clear lip on the seaward side, and a shallow dip down towards the estuary side, yet in May the beach across the beach site was clearly flatter, and with lots more and larger pebbles. There is a lot going on here! Time to get the terrestrial laser scanner out again.

From here I went on to break a chair and remind myself I really need to be stricter with my diet… so after picking up pork pies from a local bakery, we headed to sites on the Humber.


Paull Holmes Strays is what is called a Managed Reallignment site. It’s where an area of flood defence is deliberately breached, with new walls built further back, so that water will inundate the area during a high tide. This creates a new salt marsh habitat populated by birds and other wildlife. It also acts as a flood defence as it stores water during unusually high levels. The image on the left above shows one of the two breaches at the site, and the right shows collected debris on the estuary facing wall, indicating the height of a past event (possibly the 5th December 2013 storm surge).


Although I have studied it, looked at it on aerial photographs, through LiDAR data, and even modelled it, I have never visited the site – I was pleasantly surprised to find it affords you some glorious views over our estuary, including a seaward view of Hull, and a great view side on of the Humber Bridge. From here we headed to the “Jewel of the South Bank” – Barton-upon-Humber.


Here we headed to the end of the Far Ings Nature Reserve and found the Chowder Ness Managed Reallignment site. This intersects a footpath I used to use a kid to walk between Barton and South Ferriby. Here you can get a view of the other side of the Humber Bridge. Our last stop was South Ferriby, where we looked at Reed’s Island. I’m sure I’ll write a post in the future about Reed’s Island, it has an interesting (if maybe not true) history.