The 5-6 December 2013 East Coast surge: Post-event field survey & analysis by Dr Tom Spencer et al

By Matthew Wadey

Following the notorious 31 January – 1 February 1953 storm surge (which killed over 300 people the UK’s east coast), Britain’s leading coastal geomorphologist lost no time in travelling to the east coast to investigate: James Alfred Steers was head of the Department of Geography at Cambridge, and a coastal physiographer and early promoter of coastal zone planning and coastal conservation (Spencer, 2011). His paper “The East Coast Floods, January 31 – February 1 1953” has since provided a key reference and perspective upon the morphological damage and flooding that occurred from that event.

Over 60 years later, we witnessed the Xaver storm of 5-6 December 2013, an event widely considered to have caused the most severe North Sea storm surge since 1953 (and which currently ranks event #1 in the SurgeWatch database). Reminiscent of Steers, barely after the storm had passed, Tom Spencer of the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit and colleagues (Iris Möller, Ben Evans, James Tempest, and Susan Brooks) conducted detailed field surveys along the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts. The resulting publications (Spencer et al, 2014, 2015) provide a synopsis of these field observations, the meteorology, waves and sea level data are also reviewed and compared to 1953. The recent monitoring is placed into context with background monitoring (i.e. inter-annual rates of change), for example the retreat (from the 5-6 December event) of the rapidly eroding cliffs of the Suffolk coast was found to be within the natural variability, whereas on upper beach/sand dune margins the extreme water level produced a pulse of shoreline translation landwards “equivalent to about 10 years of ‘normal’ shoreline retreat”. What is apparent, is how important it is along these complex coastlines to quickly capture data that can give insights to water levels and coastal responses. At SurgeWatch we aim to improve the understanding of past coastal flood events such as 1953 so that they can be (as objectively as possible) compared to recent events. We are currently working upon a national review of the December 2013 event. Publications such as that of Steers and Spencer et al, are invaluable for this.



JSTOR. Obituary: James Alfred Steers, CBE, 1899-1987, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 153, No. 3 (Nov., 1987), pp. 436-438

Spencer, T. 2011. “Steers, James Alfred (1899 – 1987)”. © Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011.

Spencer, T., S. M. Brooks, I. Möller and B. R. Evans (2014), Where Local Matters: Impacts of a Major North Sea Storm Surge, Eos Trans. AGU, 95(30), 269.

Spencer, T., Brooks, S. M., Evans, B. R., Tempest, J. A., & Möller, I. (2015). Southern North Sea storm surge event of 5 December 2013: Water levels, waves and coastal impacts. Earth-Science Reviews, 146, 120-145.

Steers, J. A. (1953). The East Coast Floods, January 31 – February 1 1953. Geographical Journal, 119, 280-295.

Steers, J., Stoddart, D., Bayliss-Smith, T., Spencer, T. & Durbidge, P. (1979). The storm surge of 11 January 1978 on the east coast of England. Geographical Journal, 192-205.

University of Cambridge: east coast storm surge. Posted on January 24, 2014.