On the night of Saturday 31 January 1953, the UK, Netherlands and Belgium suffered one of their worst floods in modern times. A lethal combination of high tides and a wind storm over the North Sea caused a tidal surge which overwhelmed coastal defences. What could be done to stop this happening again?
The 1953 North Sea Flood
A catastrophic North Sea tidal surge in January 1953 killed 2500 people and left tens of thousands homeless. In the UK alone, 160,000 acres of farmland were flooded, killing tens of thousands of animals. Additionally, 200 miles of railway lines, 24,000 homes, 200 major factories, twelve gasworks and two power stations were inundated along the coast.
In an emotional statement to Parliament the following Tuesday, Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the flooding as a ‘shocking and tragic disaster’, and pledged that all the resources of the State would be deployed to meet the emergency. Repairs eventually cost one billion pounds.
Making model oceans
The flooding had not been caused by a higher-than-usual tide. Instead, it was caused by a tide that had occurred earlier than predicted and, driven by the howling wind, had remained high for longer than expected.
Scientists needed a better understanding of the intricate interplay between gravity, weather and the shape of the oceans to better predict storm surges and the flooding they caused. To achieve this, they needed to model the oceans, both mathematically and physically.
Scientists had been making ocean and tide models for years. One, made by leading Victorian scientist William Thomson, predicted tides a year in advance after four hours of cranking its handle. But the complexity of storm surges meant that more power was needed.
Decades later, in 1949, a 29-year-old Japanese ocean scientist at the Nagasaki Marine Observatory, Shizuo Ishiguro, began working on a project to apply electronics to storm surge prediction, enabling more complex modelling. Four years later, the North Sea Flood struck with its devastating force.
Shizuo Ishiguro’s North Sea machine
Within six months of the devastating North Sea Flood, the UK government had begun investing heavily in ocean research.
As the UK’s oceanography community scrambled to accelerate its research into the North Sea and its deadly surges, the director of the National Institute of Oceanography in Surrey, George Deacon, scoured overseas institutes and conferences for promising talent.
It was at an oceanography conference in Japan that Deacon met Shizuo Ishiguro and learned about his pioneering use of electronic models. Deacon was intrigued, telling the young scientist, ‘you must come and show us how to do it’.
In 1956, Ishiguro decided to continue his studies in Britain and moved to the institute in Surrey, where he made a six-foot-high electronic model of the North Sea.
North Sea oil and gas
Ishiguro’s model contributed to a growing sophistication in the oceanography industry. It was used for several years and was continually modified and improved as new technologies became available. Its flexibility meant it could model any sea or ocean – it was just a case of changing the programme.
It also helped meet new challenges. Throughout the 1950s the North Sea came under increased scientific scrutiny as major reserves of oil and gas began to be discovered. Research in the 1960s rocketed.
By 1967 the petrochemical industry had invested £100 million into oceanographic research, including waves, tides and weather effects. Mathematicians modelling the North Sea had never been in greater demand.
What became of the North Sea machine?
After Shizuo Ishiguro retired, he took his ocean model home, where it was housed in his garage to be tinkered with and modified.
But what can one do with an increasingly out-dated electronic model of the North Sea? His son, the writer Kazuo Ishiguro, recently commented, ‘It was really heavy and looked like the inside of a Tardis. My father died in 2007 ... The fantastic news is that, last summer (2014), the Science Museum decided it was of historic interest. My mother was so relieved somebody was going to take it away’. This unique piece of mathematical history has therefore been preserved forever.
As Winston Churchill had said in 1953, the North Sea Flood was a shocking and tragic disaster. But it launched a major programme of ocean research which has vastly improved our understanding of the ways oceans move and behave. This research continues to this day.
The Thames Flood Barrier
It was one thing to understand and predict ocean tides and surges. It was another to protect vulnerable communities from their potentially catastrophic effects.
During the 1953 North Sea Flood, which caused such devastation on both sides of the North Sea, central London was spared serious damage. But the waters of the River Thames had lapped at the tops of river walls.
As Churchill made his speeches to Parliament in the days following the disaster, he was acutely aware – standing as he was just feet from the river’s edge – how close the capital had come to succumbing to the water. Within months, experts appointed in the aftermath of the flood set out plans for a gigantic flood barrier across the Thames.
Mathematicians in all disciplines got involved in planning a barrier across the River Thames. Some were tidal surge modellers. Others brought extensive knowledge of astronomy. Actuaries in the insurance industry provided crucial data on the probable cost to life and property of future flooding. Hydrodynamicists modelled water flow over the barrier’s gates. Aerodynamicists designed the huge engine houses rising above the water’s surface.
The barrier was eventually completed in 1982 and has protected London ever since.