The 2013 North Sea tidal surge – lessons and implications for future management of the natural environment

Tim Collins

Natural England
Principal Specialist – Coasts & Water

T: 0300 060 0754

Last winter’s tidal surge, floods and storms had a substantive impact on the natural environment. The tidal surge led to the inundation of more than two thousand hectares of SSSI, through both the overtopping and breaching of seawalls. In most cases this was temporary however in at least one case the breach is now accepted as permanent. There was also substantive damage to nature reserve infrastructure with fences and birdwatching hides washed away, trackways torn up and visitor centres flooded.

The interesting question is whether the surge and subsequent storms have caused substantive damage to sites of ecological or geomorphological importance? Floodplains can be expected to flood, so while such events have become fewer since 1953 (following substantive and widespread seawall improvements following that surge event) they are still part of the ecology of coastal ecosystems. There will be some immediate impacts however over time sites will recover (even if their ecological or geomorphological interest evolves during the recovery phase). Long-term changes are only likely when flood event frequency starts to exceed recovery time. That said climate change predictions indicate that such events will become more frequent in the coming decades and there is a need to consider how we can make the natural environment (and its associated infrastructure) more resilient to future floods.

In recognition of the severity of last winter’s events Natural England ran its own flood recovery grant scheme in the early part of 2014. This was focussed on providing support for site managers to reopen nature reserves and other sites in time for the 2014 Easter holidays. Natural England also provided financial support for farmers through the agri-environment programme to effect repairs to enable them to continue, for example, livestock grazing on saltmarshes. Where practical we have sought to fund adaptive approaches that will be more resilient to future flood events; however there is more to do in this area.

Natural England, with the support of a wide range of conservation bodies, is currently in the process of producing a report that records the impacts of last winter’s tidal surge, storms and floods on the natural environment. It is hope to publish this in late spring 2015.


The implications of a major coastal flood on nature conservation interests in England (ENRR695) 

Flood defence standards for designated sites (ENRR629)