We cannot overrate the value of early warning systems

It may have proven to be a false alarm, but the residents of eastern coastal areas of the UK should be very grateful that the local authorities took such a comprehensive and proactive approach to the very real threat of coastal flooding that faced these areas on Friday (13th Jan). Given the heavy rains and strong winds forecast, which combined with very low pressure and an associated storm surge, the threat was no less real for proving inaccurate: disaster averted

Prediction of flooding is not an exact science. Too many variables at the local scale such as the shallowness of coastal waters, amount of precipitation and proximity to river basins can act together to compound or reduce the the risk of flooding. Meteorologists can only ever make a prediction based on the limited data available over a large area, then use that data to evaluate how great the risk is in a local area. Evacuation is never a recommendation made lightly but safety has to come first.

However, even though the predicted severe flooding did not occur, sadly Friday’s bad weather has not been without its casualties. A dog walker lost his life in Thorpeness (Suffolk) when the soft, sandy cliff he was walking on collapsed without warning, no doubt greatly weakened by the heavy rains and waves: cliff collapse. In this case knowledge and understanding of local geology is vital to ensure the safety of residents,  and although warning/ danger signs had been erected very recently, it is unclear whether the victim was a local resident or a visitor who may have underestimated the risk with tragic consequences.

Early warning systems are also essential for a variety of natural hazards and their value cannot be overlooked. Even a few minutes’ warning before, say, the approach of a tsunami can save, if not businesses and buildings, much more importantly thousands of lives. In the case of Great Yarmouth, Thorpeness and other coastal areas on the East coast, voluntary evacuation may have been an inconvenience but Friday’s decision represents an excellent collaboration between meteorologists, local government, emergency services and the RAF. This time we were lucky, but in the future, whether our worst predictions come to pass or not, at least we will be prepared.

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