Learning to Battle Rising Seas from the Dutch

Share this article

In 1609, the English maritime explorer Henry Hudson arrived in New York Harbor on an expedition for the Dutch.

Four hundred years later, as New York City faces the ramifications of climate change, it is learning from the Dutch how to manage rising sea levels, which could rise as much as 55 inches by 2100.

On September 9th and 10th, a conference in New York City will examine the challenges coastal cities face in the 21st century. Held by the Henry Hudson 400 Foundation, the H209 Forum will bring together leaders from both the U.S. and the Netherlands, a country that has long battled flooding, with more than a quarter of its lands lying below sea level.

“It’s a good chance to look into the Dutch water case – how do they do it? Obviously, the Netherlands has had a long history of struggling and living with the water,” says Gert Tetteroo, the executive director of the Henry Hudson 400.

Although New York City sits above sea level, it has important infrastructure, including its subway system and traffic tunnels, below sea level. Also, parts of downtown are only 1.5 meters, or 59 inches above sea level. As sea levels rise, the city will become more susceptible to dangerous storm surges and the flooding they would bring.

The New York City Panel on Climate Change says sea levels could rise 12 to 23 inches by 2100, according to current general circulation models (GCM), the software programs used to project future climate. They show that warmer water will expand, causing the seas to rise two to five inches by the 2020s, and 7 to 12 inches by the 2050s.

However, most GCMs do not account for recent developments such as accelerated ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica. So, PlaNYC 2030, the city’s sustainability plan which contains strategies to adapt to and mitigate climate change, also makes projections that take these phenomena into account. Then, it’s possible that sea level rise could accelerate and reach as high as 41 to 55 inches by the 2080s, and coastal floods that are currently expected to happen once every 10 years, could happen every one to three years.

Some other American cities dealing with the likelihood of increased flooding include the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Miami, and most prominently, New Orleans.

Piet Dircke, a director for water management for the Dutch company Arcadis, says experts in the Netherlands have found three types of tools can protect against rising seas:

  • infrastructure,
  • natural systems that combine civil engineering and water management techniques,
  • and smart technologies.

“Storm surge barriers like we have in the Netherlands are good solutions,” he says, “but they are the last option you should consider, because they are very expensive and very complicated technically, and they need a very high level of operational maintenance.”

Using natural systems to prevent flooding, called ecomorphology, involves improving sediment flow by placing sediment at scientifically determined sites along the coast. The Dutch have also begun a program called Room for the Rivers, which gives more room to the land around rivers to flood where the water will cause the least damage. For instance, dikes can be moved further away from rivers, allowing more space for flooding, or side channels can be created next to rivers to create more areas for water to pool. The banks between the river and the dike can also be lowered, forming more space for floodwaters.

Dircke’s company Arcadis is working on an $8 million ecomorphology project called the Violet Diversion in New Orleans. Designed to improve the water quality and stop the loss of nearby wetlands and marshlands, it will divert fresh Mississippi water into a brackish area. In the process, it will create a storm surge buffer around the city.

The Netherlands is also looking to make its storm surge systems smarter with sensor technology to monitor the dikes and levees and get earlier flood warnings.

Dircke and a consortium of public and private organizations have united to work on creating a stronger, smarter flood control standard for 2015. He notes that the Netherlands’ dikes are designed at a level that would allow a flood only once in 10,000 years, but says,

“our objective for 2015 is to make decisions that we can take [in an emergency] that are two times faster and two times better.”

He says sensors on the dikes, levees and dunes will notify them of when a levee is close to collapse: “We combine the sensor technology with storm prediction models and hurricane prediction models and hydraulic models that calculate and predict waves, and all this combined information gives us an earlier warning of a levee failure somewhere in the system.” Holland has previously evacuated up to a quarter of a million people from areas of the Netherlands, only to realize afterwards that the evacuation was not necessary.

California and the Netherlands have begun a partnership to study adaptation measures for rising sea levels, the results of which will be released at a Bay Area symposium on September 21st. Arcadis program manager Peter Wijsman, who is working on the study, says the study projects for 16 inches of sea rise by mid-century and 55 inches by 2100.

The study will recommend protection measures based on types of shoreline, such as urban, industrial or wetland shorelines. For instance, with an urban shoreline, “you integrate flood protection structures into the urban landscape, such as a promenade along a shoreline with a levee or a flood wall not visible to the general public,” says Wijsman. Other recommendations include creating wetlands to reduce wave height and absorb energy.

Wijsman says that it’s not only the Dutch that are teaching Americans how to deal with floods:

“What makes California particularly interesting is the high-level research being done here at various universities like Stanford, UC-Berkeley or research institutes like Scripps in San Diego, and the progressive call that California plays in fighting climate change and developing legislation for greenhouse gas reduction.”


See also:

Government Report Brings Climate Change to America’s Backyard

Melting Ice Could Lead to Massive Waves of Climate Refugees

Carbon Disclosure Project Turns Up the Pressure on Cities

(Photo: A. van der Linde/Wikimedia Commons)