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Why isn’t the Netherlands underwater? - Stefan Al


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In January 1953, a tidal surge shook the North Sea. The titanic waves flooded the Dutch coastline, killing almost 2,000 people. 54 years later, a similar storm threatened the region. But this time, they were ready. This was thanks to a massive, interlocking system known as the Delta Works— the most sophisticated flood prevention project in the world. Stefan Al dives into this marvel of engineering.

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The low-lying country of the Netherlands has cleverly adapted itself to fight floods. Engineers created a system that combined grassy dykes with state-of-the art computer sensors, satellites, and the world’s largest moving structures. How does this system protect citizens from floods?

The Delta Works fits in the long tradition of innovative engineering in the Netherlands to fight floods that started in the middle Ages. Back then, wooden windmills were an early technology that harnesses the energy of the wind to pump the water out of swampy areas. Today, these traditional windmills are tourist attractions but the Dutch flood protection system still relies on many pumps to keep those low-lying areas dry.

So far the Delta Works has worked well and is able to reduce the risk for failure in the most populous portion of the Netherlands (North and South Holland) at the very safe dike chance of failure of 1:10,000 per year. One unusual threat is a type of rodent, called muskrats. These rodents weaken levees by burrowing inside them, which could lead to collapse.

But with sea levels rising, the risk levels are increasing. As a result, the Delta Works were upgraded to the new expected sea levels. However, with global warming accelerating sea level rise, the system will need even more costly upgrades. This highlights a difficult problem for flood protection engineers. How do you engineer a dam to when there is a lot of uncertainty around future water levels? In addition, would you design a dam structure for water levels 30 years from now, expecting to upgrade it later? Or do you dimension the structure for so it can be functional for the next 100 years, in which case you’d have to make the system bigger than it really needs to be in the short term.

If you’d like to learn more about the Dutch flood protection system, as well as the various ways in which urban planners, architects, and engineers fit flood protection systems into cities around the world, you can take a look at my book, Adapting Cities to Sea Level Rise: Green and Gray Strategies. To learn more about the most recent Dutch national water strategy, you can download the new National Water Plan. Individual cities in the Netherlands have made resilience plans as well, for instance Rotterdam with their city-wide resilience strategy.

To learn more about the projected sea level rise in your area, you can check out this tool developed my Climate Central. TED ED has several videos that will give you a deeper insight into sea level rise, such as this video that explains the impact of thermal expansion on rising sea levels. This video will show sea level rise is already impacting lifelong residents on Isle de Jean Charles, a small and vanishing island off the Louisiana coast.

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Meet The Creators

  • Director Jody Ghani Nordby
  • Educator Stefan Al
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Art Director Jody Ghani Nordby
  • Animator Jody Ghani Nordby
  • Storyboard Artist Jody Ghani Nordby
  • Compositor Jody Ghani Nordby
  • Producer The Animation Workshop, Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Sound Designer André Aires
  • Music André Aires
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma

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