Thames Barrier in London
The Thames Barrier is the world's second-largest movable flood barrier (after the Oosterscheldekering in the Netherlands) and is located downstream of central London. Its purpose is to prevent London from being flooded by exceptionally high tides and storm surges moving up from the sea. It needs to be raised (closed) only during high tide; at ebb tide it can be lowered to release the water that backs up behind it. Its northern bank is in Silvertown in the London Borough of Newham and its southern bank is in the New Charlton area of Charlton in the London Borough of Greenwich. The report of Sir Hermann Bondi into the North Sea flood of 1953 affecting parts of the Thames Estuary and parts of London was instrumental in the building of the barrier.
Geographical weather system
London is vulnerable to flooding. A storm surge generated by low pressure in the Atlantic Ocean sometimes tracks eastwards past the north of Scotland and may then be driven into the shallow waters of the North Sea. The surge tide is funnelled down the North Sea which narrows towards the English Channel and the Thames Estuary. If the storm surge coincides with a spring tide, dangerously high water levels can occur in the Thames Estuary. This situation combined with downstream flows in the Thames provides the triggers for flood defence operations.
Rising water levels
The threat has increased over time due to the slow but continuous rise in high water level over the centuries (20 cm (8 inches) / 100 years) and the slow "tilting" of Britain (up in the north and west, and down in the south and east) caused by post-glacial rebound.
Fourteen people died in the 1928 Thames flood, and after 307 people died in the UK in the North Sea Flood of 1953 the issue gained new prominence.
Early proposals for a flood control system were stymied by the need for a large opening in the barrier to allow for vessels from London Docks to pass through. When containerization replaced older forms of shipping and a new port was opened at Tilbury, a smaller barrier became feasible with each of the four main navigation spans being the same width as the opening of Tower Bridge.
Design and construction
The concept of the rotating gates was devised by Charles Draper. The barrier was designed by Rendel, Palmer and Tritton for the Greater London Council and tested at the Hydraulics Research Station, Wallingford. The site at New Charlton was chosen because of the relative straightness of the banks, and because the underlying river chalk was strong enough to support the barrier. Work began at the barrier site in 1974 and construction, which had been undertaken by a Costain/Hollandsche Beton Maatschappij/Tarmac Construction consortium, was largely complete by 1982. In addition to the barrier itself the flood defences for 11 miles down river were raised and strengthened. The barrier was officially opened on 8 May 1984 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Total construction cost was around £534 m (£1.3 billion at 2001 prices) with an additional £100 m for river defences.
Built across a 520 m wide stretch of the river, the barrier divides the river into four 61 m and two about 30 metre (100 ft) navigable spans. There are also four smaller non-navigable channels between nine concrete piers and two abutments. The flood gates across the openings are circular segments in cross section, and they operate by rotating, raised to allow "underspill" to allow operators to control upstream levels and a complete 180 degree rotation for maintenance. All the gates are hollow and made of steel up to 40 mm thick. The gates fill with water when submerged and empty as they emerge from the river. The four large central gates are 20.1 m high and weigh 3,700 tonnes. Four radial gates by the riverbanks, also about 30 metres (100 ft) wide, can be lowered. These gate openings, unlike the main six, are non-navigable.
Prediction for operation
A Thames Barrier flood defence closure is triggered when a combination of high tides forecast in the North Sea and high river flows at the tidal limit at Teddington weir indicate that water levels would exceed 4.87 m in central London. Forecast sea levels at the mouth of the Thames Estuary are generated by Met Office computers and also by models run on the Thames Barrier's own forecasting and telemetry computer systems. About 9 hours before the high tide reaches the barrier a flood defence closure begins with messages to stop river traffic, close subsidiary gates and alert other river users. As well as the Thames Barrier, the smaller gates along the Thames Tideway include Barking Barrier, King George V Lock gate, Dartford Barrier and gates at Tilbury Docks and Canvey Island must also be closed. Once river navigation has been stopped and all subsidiary gates closed, then the Thames Barrier itself can be closed. The smaller gates are closed first, then the main navigable spans in succession. The gates remain closed until the tide downstream of the barrier falls to the same level as the water level upstream.
After periods of heavy rain west of London, floodwater can also flow down the Thames upstream from London. Because the river is tidal from Teddington weir all the way through London, this is only a problem at high tide, which prevents the floodwater from escaping out to sea. From Teddington the river is opening out into its estuary, and at low tide it can take much greater flow rates the further one goes downstream. In periods when the river is in flood upstream, if the gates are closed shortly after low tide, a huge empty volume is created behind the barrier which can act as a reservoir to hold the floodwater coming over Teddington weir. Most river floods will not fill this volume in the few hours of the high tide cycle during which the barrier needs to be closed. If the barrier was not there, the high tide would fill up this volume instead, and the floodwater could then spill over the river banks in London. About a third of the closures up to 2009 were to alleviate fluvial flooding.
Barrier closures and incidents
In the 1980s there were four closures, 35 closures in the 1990s, and 75 closures in the first decade of this century.
An incident that was potentially catastrophic for London occurred on 27 October 1997. The dredger MV Sand Kite sailing in thick fog, collided with one of the Thames Barrier's piers. As the ship started to sink she dumped her 3,300 tonne load of aggregate, finally sinking by the bow on top of one of the barrier's gates where she lay for several days. Initially the gate could not be closed as it was covered in a thick layer of gravel. A longer term problem was the premature loss of paint on the flat side of the gate caused by abrasion. One estimate of the cost of flooding damage, had it occurred, was around £13 billion. The vessel was refloated in mid-November 1997.
The barrier was closed twice on 9 November 2007 after a storm surge in the North Sea which was compared to the one in 1953. The main danger of flooding from the surge was on the coast above the Thames Barrier, where evacuations took place, but the winds abated a little and, at the Thames Barrier, the 9 November 2007 storm surge did not completely coincide with high tide.
The barrier was originally commissioned by the Greater London Council under the guidance of Ray Horner. After the 1986 abolition of the GLC it was operated successively by Thames Water Authority and then the National Rivers Authority until April 1996 when it passed to the Environment Agency.
The barrier was originally designed to protect London against a big flood level, with a return period of one-thousand years up to the year 2030, after which the protection would decrease, whilst remaining within acceptable limits.
This defence level included long-term changes in sea and land levels as understood at that time (c. 1970). Despite global warming and a consequently greater predicted rate of sea level rise recent analysis extended the working life of the barrier until around 2060–2070. From 1982 until 19 March 2007, the barrier was raised one-hundred times to prevent flooding. It is also raised monthly for testing.
Released in 2005, a study by four respected academics contained a proposal to supersede the Thames Barrier by a more ambitious 16 km (10 mi) long barrier across the Thames Estuary from Sheerness in Kent to Southend in Essex.
In November 2011 a new Thames Barrier, further downsteam at Lower Hope between East Tilbury in Essex and Cliffe in Kent, was proposed as part of the Thames Hub integrated infrastructure development. The barrier would incorporate hydropower turbines to generate renewable energy and include road and rail tunnels, providing connections from Essex to a major new hub airport on the Isle of Grain.
- Thames Barrier Park
- Oosterscheldekering, part of the Delta Works
- Flood control
- Port of London Authority
- Barrier Gardens Pier
- Environment Agency
- River Thames
- Stuart Gilbert and Ray Horner - The Thames Barrier - Telford 1984
- The Thames Barrier. S Gilbert. Thomas Telford Ltd. 30 June 1986. 216 pages. .
- The Story of the Thames Barrier. Ken Wilson. Lanthorn. 1984. 32 pages. .
- Thames Barrier page at the Environment Agency
- Animation showing how the Barrier works
- Streetmap of Thames Barrier
- Thames Barrier Information and Learning Centre - on south side of the Thames
- Thames Barrier Park - park by the Barrier on north side of the Thames