When it comes to global warming and rising sea levels, the Dutch have a plan for that. No, it isn’t a Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike. Most Dutch people have never heard that story. It was purely a figment of the imagination of American author Mary Mapes Dodge.
In the real world, dikes don’t spring tiny leaks the size of a little boy’s finger. Instead, whole sections rapidly disintegrate and collapse. With a horrifying whoosh, they break abruptly, and trigger raging unstoppable torrents that scour the land and terrify humanity.
During the last such flood in the Netherlands in 1953, instead of a little boy, it was a large Dutch boat captain who plugged the dike. While flood water surged through a 50-foot (15 m) rupture in the IJssel River dike, skipper Arie Evegroen maneuvered his cargo vessel into the breach, saving an estimated three million people from inundation.
In response to the terrible 1953 North Sea Flood, the Netherlands initiated the Delta Works development to protect large areas of low-lying land around the Rhine River delta. Consisting of a comprehensive series of dams, locks, dikes, weirs, and storm surge barriers, the Delta Works complex is the world’s largest flood control system.
The first element of the Delta Works, completed in 1958, was the Stormvloedkering Hollandse IJssel, a system of two moveable weirs hanging between concrete towers. On the rare sunny day of my visit, the cyan colored weir gates were raised high above the tranquil river below.
On another calm and unthreatening day, we visited the newest component of the Delta Works. Opened in 1997, the Maeslant storm surge barrier is one of largest moving structures in world. This engineering marvel consists of two steel lattice gates, each the size of an Eiffel Tower lying on its side.
Designed to defend against the 10,000-year flood, the Maeslant storm surge barrier automatically closes whenever the storm waters exceed 10 feet (3 m) above normal. Each year before the beginning of storm season, the barrier is closed for testing. Otherwise, it has only been shut twice for actual storm surge concerns.
The Maeslant storm surge barrier is positioned to protect Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands, and Europe’s largest seaport. Rotterdam is a modern metropolis, rebuilt in new and daring architectural styles, after being almost completed destroyed by German bombardment during World War II.
Like most of South Holland, Rotterdam lies below sea level. Prompted to protect its population, the city is confronting global warming and preparing for sea level rise. We saw houseboat subdivisions, floating exhibition spaces, and a sports court that doubles as a storm water catch basin.
In the future, the low-lying Netherlands will be the country most vulnerable to global warming. Even with immediate cuts to carbon emissions, sea level is predicted to rise between 1.5 and 6.5 feet (0.5 to 2.0 m) by the end of the 21st century. To keep the rising waters at bay, the Dutch have a plan to save their country, and it doesn’t involve a little boy with his finger in the dike.
Reference: “New Elevation Data Tripled Estimates of Global Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Flooding” by Scott A. Kulp and Benjamin H. Strauss, Nature Communications 10, Article 4844, October 29, 2019
Feature Image: Memorial to boat captain Arie Evegroen, who used his boat to plug the Groenedijk on the River IJssel during the North Sea Flood of 1953.
Blogger’s Note: This week, we returned home after our two-month trip to the Netherlands. We will be home for a few months to celebrate the holidays and to research our next trip. Esther and I want to thank all the friends and family that read our blog, and hope you have a very enjoyable (and dry) holiday season.