Historic storms and the hidden value of coastal wetlands for nature-based flood defence


Global change amplifies coastal flood risks and motivates a paradigm shift towards nature-based coastal defence, where engineered structures are supplemented with coastal wetlands such as saltmarshes. Although experiments and models indicate that such natural defences can attenuate storm waves, there is still limited field evidence on how much they add safety to engineered structures during severe storms. Using well-documented historic data from the 1717 and 1953 flood disasters in Northwest Europe, we show that saltmarshes can reduce both the chance and impact of the breaching of engineered defences. Historic lessons also reveal a key but unrecognized natural flood defence mechanism: saltmarshes lower flood magnitude by confining breach size when engineered defences have failed, which is shown to be highly effective even with long-term sea level rise. These findings provide new insights into the mechanisms and benefits of nature-based mitigation of flood hazards, and should stimulate the development of novel safety designs that smartly harness different natural coastal defence functions.

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Fig. 1: Analysis of dyke breach records during the 1717 Christmas flood.
Fig. 2: Maps of the Wadden Sea coast in the region considered in this study.
Fig. 3: Recent storm observations for a wave-exposed marsh in the Wadden Sea.
Fig. 4: Analysis of dyke breach records from the 1953 North Sea flood.
Fig. 5: Relative advantage of saltmarsh foreshores over tidal flats in reducing flood impact under sea level rise.
Fig. 6: An example of steps to implement novel nature-based flood protection with marshes between double dykes.

Data availability

The collected wave data for the two present-day storms are available on figshare (https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.6011129.v2). Other data that support the findings of this study are available within the paper and its supplementary information files.

Code availability

The Matlab scripts for calculating breach discharge and the expected fatality rate in the flooded area are available on figshare (https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.6010958).


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We thank I. Kratzer and J. de Smit for their help in the field. We also thank A. Wielemaker for GIS support and Q. Zhu for the assistance in polishing the figures. This work is part of the research programme BESAFE, financed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). Additional financial support has been provided by Deltares, Boskalis, Van Oord, Rijkswaterstaat, World Wildlife Fund, HZ University of Applied Science and ARK Natuurontwikkeling. Z.Z. was also supported by the project funded by the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (2019M652825) and the Key Special Project for Introduced Talents Team of the Southern Marine Science and Engineering Guangdong Laboratory (Guangzhou; GML2019ZD0403).

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Z.Z., V.V., S.T. and T.J.B. conceived the idea for the paper and wrote the initial draft. Z.Z., V.V., T.S., P.J.V. and S.N.J. collected and analysed the data. All authors discussed the results and improved on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Zhenchang Zhu.

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Zhu, Z., Vuik, V., Visser, P.J. et al. Historic storms and the hidden value of coastal wetlands for nature-based flood defence. Nat Sustain (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0556-z

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