Critical research findings that will help plan future flood risk in the Thames Estuary are revealed today as part of the Environment Agency’s Thames Estuary 2100 Project — a project that considers an adaptive approach for planning for future flood risk in the Estuary.Summer floods at Wallingford, 2007

The Environment Agency commissioned climate scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Met Office Hadley Centre and Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory to investigate what impact climate change will have on the area over the next 100 years.

The results, released today at the international conference Climate change impacts and adaptation: Dangerous rates of change at Exeter University, confirm that current Government predictions and previous flood scenarios are realistic and have gone a long way to reducing the uncertainty around maximum water levels.

The key findings from this new research are:

  • Sea level rise in the Thames over the next century due to thermal expansion of the oceans, melting glaciers and polar ice is likely to be between 20cm and 90cm.
  • There remains much uncertainty over the contribution of polar ice melt to increasing sea level rise. At the extreme, it may cause sea level to rise by a total of up to 2 metres (including thermal expansion).
  • Climate change is less likely to increase storm surge height and frequency in the North Sea than previously thought.
  • Future peak freshwater flows for the Thames, at Kingston for instance, could increase by around 40% by 2080.

Crucially, in terms of the Thames estuary, this research means that:

  • Current Government predictions for sea-level rise in the Thames Estuary are realistic.
  • The Environment Agency’s Thames Estuary 2100 project is using the best available climate change science to plan with confidence for future flood management on the Thames Estuary.
  • Previous worst-case scenario of increases in maximum water levels can be revised down from 4.2 metres to 2.7 metres. Such a reduction in worst case scenario for this century means that a tide-excluding estuary barrage is unlikely to be necessary to manage flood risk this century.

Speaking about the results, Dr Jason Lowe, Head of Mitigation at the Met Office said: “Having greater clarity on things such as storm surge frequency is tremendously valuable and not just from a scientific point of view. This research will help to direct investment where it is most needed to manage the impacts of climate change.”

Tim Reeder, Regional Climate Change Programme Manager for the Environment Agency Thames Region said: “This research enables the Environment Agency to continue to plan flood management investment with confidence. By narrowing previous uncertainty we now have an improved understanding of how climate change will affect the Thames Estuary and can develop realistic and cost-effective options, which will meet future needs. These are cutting-edge results and demonstrate the value of the Government engaging with the world-class scientists we have here in the UK.”

The study was commissioned to reduce climate change uncertainties, in particular the future frequency and height of North Sea storm surges on the Thames Estuary. In addition, the group answered other key questions to assist the Environment Agency to plan future flood-management investment with confidence:

  • By how much the thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm would increase sea levels in the Thames estuary?
  • By how much sea levels in the estuary might rise due to polar ice melt?
  • By how much freshwater flows in the Thames are likely to increase?

Additional information

Media enquiries about this work should be directed to the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology press office.


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