Travels Below Sea Level

This week, we left North Holland and traveled two hours by train to our new home for the month in Moordrecht, near the famous cheese town of Gouda, in South Holland. Rolling past the flat green pastureland outlined by canals full of water, we easily completed our move without ever raising our heads above mean sea level.

Area below MSL

Netherlands Below Sea Level (source: Christian Science Monitor)

Both provinces of North and South Holland lie mostly below sea level. Only two other countries in the world (The Maldives and Qatar) have lower average elevations than the Netherlands. This is partially due to the geology, which includes the soft compressible sediments of the massive low-lying Rhine River delta.

Lowest point

Zuidplaspolder, Lowest Point in the Netherlands (6.76 m below sea level)

This low land area was also rich in shallow subsurface peat deposits, which local inhabitants have been digging for fuel for the past 3,000 years. Historically, with the combination of high river flows, North Sea storms, and peat excavations below sea level, the country has suffered severe flooding and terrible loss of life and land.

Es dock Reeuwijk

Sitting on the dock of the Reeuwijk Lakes

Extensive flooded peat excavations can still be seen just outside Gouda at Reeuwijk Lakes. Here, peat was dredged from beneath the water table to fire pottery kilns and beer breweries. When the peat was gone, groundwater recharge filled a complex of 13 shallow rectangular lakes only separated by straight narrow roads.

Levee on bike

Cycling between a dike and a polder near Gouda

In the rest of the country, the Dutch have employed a two-step process to drain the swamps and reclaim the flooded land for agricultural and population purposes. First, they constructed long mounds called dikes that fully enclosed a given underwater area. Then, once the ring-dike was completed, they pumped out the water using those iconic Dutch windmills.

Kinderdijk 6

Windmills at Kinderdijk

To see the greatest concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands, we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk. Here, at one of the country’s best-known tourist attractions, an 18th century dike system and 19 windmills successfully converted the waterlogged land into dry ground called a polder.

Polder cornfield 2

Beemster Polder

The first polder constructed in the Netherlands is also on UNESCO’s list. The Beemster polder was drained in the early 17th century, and is now a fertile grassland known for its happy cows and tasty Beemster cheese.

Afsluitdijk

Afsluitdijk (saltwater North Sea on left and freshwater IJsselmeer on right)

During the 20th century, the Dutch perfected the land reclamation process and shifted it into high gear. In 1932, a 20-mile long dam called the Afsluitdijk was constructed to close off the vast Zuiderzee Bay from the North Sea. Over time, freshwater runoff replaced the sea water and the Zuiderzee bay was renamed the IJsselmeer lake.

The Mower

The Mower of Wieringerwerf (In 1945, the retreating German Army bombed the IJsselmeer dike and floodwaters reached the Mower’s shoulders)

Within the great IJsselmeer lake, the Dutch reclaimed enormous tracts of polder land to create the whole new province of Flevoland. This impressive manmade system of dams, dikes, and high-powered diesel pumps is hailed as the Netherlands’ largest hydraulic engineering project of the 20th century.

CONO Joe

CONO Beemster Cheese Factory (clear tube shows depth below sea level)

Faced with low and subsiding acreage, the Dutch have engineered a masterful land reclamation plan to expand their agricultural, commercial, and residential property. Herein, we continue to admire the happy cows, eat the tasty cheese, and enjoy our travels below sea level.

Windmill polder girls

Windmills and Polders with Claire and Cassie

13 thoughts on “Travels Below Sea Level

  1. Fascinating! I was almost completely unaware of that history. Isn’t it interesting how humans have always been determined to re-shape the natural world… and then are surprised to experience all sorts of unforeseen consequences as a result. Despite the current rich farmlands and happy cows, I imagine that area is more than a little concerned about Climate Change and the rising sea levels. I’m really enjoying your visit to this historically complex and beautiful part of the world… and am very envious of your immersion in cheeseland!

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    • The cheese is really good here, Janis. Now that we have relocated just outside Gouda, we have a lot more cheese to sample. You are on the mark about the unintended consequences of human activity. I wonder who had the bright idea of excavating peat from a flat waterlogged landscape that was already below sea level? I suppose they were desperate to fuel their fires, pre-global warming. Now that climate change is upon us, the Dutch will have a real problem keeping their heads above water.

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  2. I’m sending this post to friends who live in Miami Beach, Joe. Both are active in community efforts aimed to control flooding there (which I fear is a lost cause at least there, but I pray not). Anyway, how fascinating that the Dutch are so far ahead in dealing with rising waters. They’ve had quite a head start on the rest of us apparently!

    Gorgeous photos, and I am still amazed by those windmills. – Marty

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    • Thanks for sharing, Marty. In this post, I concentrated on the Dutch land reclamation efforts. They have also constructed an equally impressive flood control system. I am currently trying to visit some of these sites, so I can write about them. So far, I am encouraged by their positive attitude toward sea level rise. They are confident in their engineering ability to hold back the rising seas, and have even developed a core competence that they are exploiting to help other low-lying areas around the world. Unfortunately, the old windmills are no longer used in their efforts. – Joe

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  3. Few years ago we did a mini cruise from Southampton to Amsterdam and we were so impressed by the Dutch sea defenses as we approached Amsterdam. It was fascinating to see it from the water. I dind’t really know much about the history and techniques behind the land reclamation efforts, so thank you for writing about it here. The windmills are so beautiful.

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    • That sounds like an interesting cruise, Gilda. Some of the most impressive sea defenses are located around Rotterdam, here in South Holland. I would love to take a boat trip to get a close up view of these modern marvels. Controlling water and reclaiming land is deeply rooted in Dutch culture. It is remarkable to me how normal daily life seems below sea level, considering the close proximity of the turbulent and rising North Sea. The windmills are beautiful indeed, and Kinderdijk is a great place to see them.

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  4. I always learn so much from your posts, Joe. I had no idea so much of Holland was reclaimed from the sea, or that the windmills played such a key role.
    One thing I did know, happy cows make the best cheese. 😉

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    • Thank you, Christi. I didn’t have any idea either, until I saw all of the meticulously laid-out farms below the 20-foot tall canals full of water. Although I worry about levee breaks and uncontrollable flooding, it really is a brilliant system. Because all the irrigation is by gravity flow, I have not seen a single pivot, water-line or sprinkler. The windmills are also really cool and so photogenic. Even after seeing hundreds of them on our travels here, I still have to stop and marvel each time one comes into view. From the TV commercials, I always thought the happiest cows came from California. I was wrong!

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  5. I am so impressed with their ability to handle the rising waters and to build thriving communities below sea-level! I think the rest of us could learn a thing or two from the Dutch engineers. Thanks for this post, Joe! As usual, it was both enjoyable and informative!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ann. I too have been extremely impressed with Dutch water works engineering. They have been dealing with land reclamation and flooding for centuries, and have established a modern and comprehensive system so they can live and thrive below sea level. Our realization that global warming and sea level rise jeopardizes our planet and especially coastal areas is relatively new. At this late stage, it would be exorbitant and probably prohibitive for most coastal areas to fully protect themselves. Nevertheless, the Dutch engineers could provide valuable advice to alleviate some of the future flooding and protect some of the most vulnerable coastal communities.

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  6. Very informative and interesting post Joe, and clever to tie it into the issue of global warming. As you say, the Dutch have been dealing with low country and land reclamation for centuries, so it’s unlikely that high water will sneak up on them. But you can bet there’s a bunch of Dutch scientists and engineers thinking about this problem on a daily basis. ~James

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    • Thank you, James. I am sure you are right. It just might be those same Dutch scientists and engineers that help to save the many other low-lying coastal areas around the world that are now threatened by rising sea levels. As you say, the Dutch have been dealing with excess water for centuries, and have funded projects to protect themselves. Most of the rest of the world has been taken by surprise by the effects of global warming, and are now behind the eight-ball. There doesn’t seem to be any easy solutions.

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