Space & Innovation

Should the US Copy Dutch Defenses Against Flooding?

The low-lying European nation has innovative, high-tech means to control flooding.

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Photo: The Maeslantkering protects Rotterdam' from storm surges. Credit: World66 via Wikimedia Commons The recent catastrophic floods in Louisiana and Maryland are a preview of the danger that many low-lying areas in the United States may face, due to the effect of climate change on storms and sea levels.

A 2013 report by AECOM and Deloitte Consulting, commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, found that the risk of floods across the United States will increase by 45 percent over the rest of this century. And a study published in Nature Climate Change in 2015, for example, found that major U.S. cities in low-lying coastal regions, which are home to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, are at increasing risk of what scientists call compound flooding -- that is, the combination of heavy rainfall and more intense storm surges that send water rushing over sea walls and levees.

RELATED: Rising Seas Threaten a Billion People with Flooding

That means that the United States is likely to see increases in loss of lives and property from catastrophic floods -- unless it finds innovative ways to bolster defenses against flooding.

For a model of how to do that, we might want to look to the Netherlands, where 60 percent of the land is below sea level, and there's a long tradition of living with the risk of being inundated. The European country is famous for its elaborate, centuries-old network of dikes. But after those defenses were overwhelmed by a massive flood in 1953 that killed nearly 1,800 people, the Dutch government enacted requirements that flood defenses be strong enough to withstand the most severe storm that would occur in a 10,000-year period. This drove a search for more modern solutions, and in recent decades, the Netherlands has become a world leader in developing technologies to prevent flooding.

One particularly imaginative piece of Dutch flood-prevention infrastructure is the port city of Rotterdam's article/the-maeslantkering-storm-surge-barrier.htm">Maeslantkering, a 19-year-old mechanized storm-surge barrier that is one of the largest moving structures on the planet. A Fast Company article described it as looking "like a giant drawbridge toppled sideways into the water," and noted that its gates -- actually, giant pontoons that can be pumped full of water to make them sturdier -- are each as wide as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

Nearby, there's another Dutch innovation is the "sand engine," a massive -- 706 million cubic feet--pile of man-made sediment that's placed so that the tides gradually will use it to construct a natural water break.

RELATED: Is Louisiana Flooding Another Sign of Climate Change?

Dutch scientists also have developed a cloud-based software app that enables them to model flooding risks for an area in 3D.

The Dutch have pioneered building flood defenses that are integrated into the landscape, which can be used for other purposes when the water isn't rising. One example of such Dutch-inspired thinking in the United States is the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, AKA the "Big U," a 10-foot seawall that's being built to protect Manhattan from 42nd Street on the East side to 57th Street on the West Side. The barrier will be covered with grass and trees, and lined by benches and bike paths, so that it can serve as a park in dry times.

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