Identification of extreme storm surges with high-impact potential along the German North Sea coastline


Planning and design of coastal protection rely on information about the probabilities of very severe storm tides and the possible changes that may occur in the course of climate change. So far, this information is mostly provided in the form of high percentiles obtained from frequency distributions or return values. More detailed information and assessments of events that may cause extreme damages or have extreme consequences at the coast are so far still unavailable. We describe and compare two different approaches that may be used to identify highly unlikely but still physically possible and plausible events from model simulations. Firstly, in the case when consistent wind and tide-surge data are available, different metrics such as the height of the storm surge can be derived directly from the simulated water levels. Secondly, in cases where only atmospheric data are available, the so called effective wind may be used. The latter is the projection of the horizontal wind vector on that direction which is most effective in producing surges at the coast. Comparison of events identified by both methods show that they can identify extreme events but that knowledge of the effective wind alone does not provide sufficient information to identify the highest storm surges. Tracks of the low-pressure systems over the North Sea need to be investigated to find those cases, where the duration of the high wind is too short to induce extreme storm tides. On the other hand, factors such as external surges or variability in mean sea level may enhance surge heights and are not accounted for in estimates based on effective winds only. Results from the analysis of an extended data set suggest that unprecedented storm surges at the German North Sea coast are possible even without taking effects from rising mean sea level into account. The work presented is part of the ongoing project “Extreme North Sea Storm Surges and Their Consequences” (EXTREMENESS) and represents the first step towards an impact assessment for very severe storm surges which will serve as a basis for development of adaptation options and evaluation criteria.
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