Will Climate-Change-Fueled Superstorms Wipe Out London?

A new study predicts that huge storm surges could overwhelm the British capital.

Thames Estuary

A view of the Thames Estuary with the Queen Elizabeth II bridge in the foreground. (Photo: Christopher Hope-Fitch/Getty Images)

A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Climate change seems to have a new do-badding best buddy these days. His name is Catastrophic Flooding. In March, we reported that Florida, and particularly Miami, is being threatened by a rise in sea levels if current climate-change and sea-level rise patterns continue.

Now, The Independent has published highlights from a new study that notes, “There is significant risk of London being hit by a devastating storm surge in the Thames Estuary by 2100 that could breach existing flood defenses and cause immense damage to the capital.”

In the past, storm surges that might breach the Thames barrier would have occurred with a frequency of about one in 1,000 years, but that could increase in a warmer world to be as frequent as one every 10 years.

The research was conducted by an international panel of glaciologists and climate scientists. Professor David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey tells TakePart that the rise in sea levels was estimated using “models that essentially simulate the processes going on in the ice sheets and glaciers, forcing them with global and regional climate projections.”

Vaughan is the coordinator of the Ice2Sea research program, which was established in 2008 by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the wake of its third climate report.

“That report identified shortcomings in our ability to predict the future of the ice sheets, and Ice2sea was designed to help improve the situation,” he says. “I developed the idea for Ice2sea with a small group of like-minded scientists from some key institutions.”

Yet Vaughan notes that, “All scientific models are a compromise between including so much detail that the model is impossible to use in any practical sense, and being so simple that it cannot be trusted. Normally we test that a model is adequate by seeing if it can reproduce observations.”

“For ice sheets, the body of observations of change is rather limited—it really only began in 1992 when the first really useful satellites were launched—so the degree to which we can validate the model is also limited,” he says. “We know, we’re doing a better job than models were ten years ago, but we can’t currently be sure we’re doing all we need to.”

So the scientists carried out what they call “expert elicitation.” Vaughan explains that it is a formal process of asking a group of experts about their uncertainty.

“It includes a process of calibration to find out if the experts are as expert as they think they are, and then a process of asking straightforward, unambiguous questions and looking for agreement and disagreement in their responses,” he says. “It’s not scientific in the sense that it’s truly reproducible, but it allows us to get an idea of the ‘unknown unknowns’ that keep scientists awake at night.”

With ice loss and an increase in sea level rise now appearing to be an unavoidable consequence of global warming, let’s hope that the more we can learn about those unknowns, and ways that we can protect our cities, the less acquainted we’ll become with our not-so-good buddy catastrophic flooding.

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