Issue number 22                                                                                                                                      
October 2018
For thousands of years, engineering works have been designed and built to protect us from both Nature's wrath and human-made catastrophe: effects that coalesce in the fact of climate change.

The search for solutions to these increasing threats is highlighted in the current year-long campaign by the UK's Institution of Civil Engineers: Energy, Resilience and Climate Change. So, in honour of the profession's ingenuity, this issue of our newsletter takes a look at historic and contemporary engineering efforts to design our way out of disaster.
Engineering for an uncertain world
The latest Special Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Centigrade - was published this October and received enormous media coverage.  If you missed it, perhaps because you've been hiding (tip: it's tempting, but it won't help!), catch up by reading this industry-centred report from

As reports of extreme and unusual flooding from across the world increase, so too does analysis of what could be done better to prevent such catastrophes. In London, the New Civil Engineer's Flood Risk Management Forum takes place on 21-22 November - do visit the NCE's site and, in exchange for your contact details, you can download the full brochure and see what's on.
It hasn't happened yet... at least, not in London, although images of cities and entire landscapes under water have become a distressingly frequent sight even for those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected. The mock-up above derives from a sensational(ist?) 2016 report in that imagines the results of a crippling attack on the Thames Barrier - London's main line of defence against the rising tide. 
photo : copyright Flood/Power via
If you've never visited London's increasingly hard-working Thames Barrier, it's definitely worth a trip - check the official website for opening hours and dates of test closures, when you can witness the barrier in action. As the entry on engineering timelines describes, the Thames Barrier's genesis lies in the disastrous North Sea storm surge floods of 1953 - read a brief account illustrated with 21 contemporary photographs on

In Holland, where both the death toll and the devastation caused by the 1953 flood were at their worst, it is said to have served as a "never again" occurence - as described in this BBC analysis contrasting the approach to flood risk in Holland and the UK.

The Netherlands, given its geographical conditions, unsurprisingly boasts many sites that preserve and explain the history of its sea defences and wind-powered pumping technology. In particular, the Watersnoodmuseum (Flood Museum) in Zeeland is dedicated to the 1953 flood and its impact - most impressively, the modern 13-dam sea surge defence system known as the Delta Works. gives a brief, straightforward account of the project and its parts - honoured by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the "seven wonders of the modern world". If you're lucky have the chance to spend a day or so touring Zeeland, describes the various sites in detail suitable for visitors.
The Oostershelde barrier is the largest of 13 flood protection structures that make up the Delta Works in Holland.
Of course, civilizations have always formed next to bodies of water for their very usefulness; thus, the destructive potential of those same rivers and oceans has been a recurrent issue for land-dwellers since well before engineering could be considered a profession. For the interested visitor, extant traces of (often Listed) ancient dyke and levee systems in Britain are listed in Historic England's informative pamphlet, Introduction to Roman and Medieval Sea and River Flood Defences. Get on your walking boots.

Ironically, efforts to control floods may, it seems, result in worsening the problem. This thought-provoking 2014 article on Archaeology News Network's blogspot takes a look at (then) recently uncovered evidence of ancient Chinese levee systems along the Yellow River, and how those very systems may have altered the river's behaviour over the centuries to detrimental effect.
The Idukki Dam in Kerala is one of the largest of many high-capacity dams in the state. Analysts are suggesting that such dams should have been key to mitigating the extent and impact of floods this August, instead of which the floods were exacerbated when water had to be released from overfilled dams.
If we will increasingly need to deal with the effects of climate change... how are we doing so far?  Critical analysis in the wake of devastating floods over the last decade suggest there is much room for improvement, even in the use of measures that are already in place. 

Indian business news publication,, has published an interesting commentary on the (mis)use of Kerala's many dams this summer. Technology site focuses on failures in India's disaster management planning. The report on its Tech2 pages includes a short video about the problems and potential for better weather forecasting in a country where monsoons are an integral event.

Criticisms of the ineffective use of existing flood mitigation measures will be all too familiar to analysts of the 2005 New Orleans flood that resulted from Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina remains the most expensive natural disaster in American history - as visualized in a morbidly-fascinating explanatory graphic offered by Of course, it's easy to be wise after the event - or, as folk singers Marais and Miranda so harmoniously put it in their Conservation Song, as long ago as 1963, "An ounce of flood prevention would be worth a pound of after-flood repair."

In Katrina's case, poor maintenance of the levee walls is the particular focus of commentators' anger: try this informed eye-witness account from the Smithsonian Magazine online. The article appeared ten years on from the flood, when part of the breached levee wall was placed among the exhibits of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The process of sourcing and identifying such sensitive contemporary artefacts is discussed in this interesting blog post from the museum.
We're all familiar with the phenomenon of unrelated people having the same good idea, aren't we? Pile dwellings have been constructed all over the world to help civilizations to rise above the waters - the large array of ancient pile dwellings in the Alps are Unesco World Heritage listed. In East Anglia, the site of a well preserved Bronze Age pile dwelling settlement - pictured above - was unearthed as recently as 2016.
photo : copyright
Seasonal flooding has always been a fact of life for some civilizations - including settlers in the east of England many centuries before the 1953 flood. Readers may remember the 2016 unearthing of an unusually well-preserved array of Bronze Age pile dwellings at Must Farm quarry in Norfolk: the find is summarized in this contemporary report from Historic England.

Although the dig was completed by the end of 2016, the work of the Cambridge Archaelogical Unit on the finds continues - you can read all about it on the dedicated Must Farm website. What you probably can't do, unfortunately, is visit the site, which is part of a working quarry and doesn't accept general visitors.  You'll need to come up with a really good excuse...

As the threat of rising sea levels indicates a similarly increasing threat of floods in East Anglia and the East Midlands, entrepreneurial developers are looking again at the design principles of their Bronze Age forebears - albeit with a modern twist. The elevating house - depicted below - from the Larkfleet Group in Lincolnshire is being developed in earnest.
The elevating house prototype from the Larkfleet Group involves a very modern take on the old principle of raising your dwelling above the flood.  Eight mechanical jacks are planned to take just five minutes to raise the entire house by 1.5m, thus preserving your furniture, fittings and belongings (you're supposed to stay elsewhere yourself until the waters recede). You can read the company's own report here.
photo : copyright

As global temperatures rise and humankind continues to become an increasingly urban species, tackling climate change resistance home by home will never be sufficient. Luckily, there's already an enormous amount of activity directed at working out how to climate-proof our cities - and even some implementation of the results. For a global overview of the climate-proof cities agenda, the United Nations gives the necessary scope.
Reflective coatings on roofs and roads may pave the way to less heat absorption in built-up areas as temperatures rise. This picture - part of a fascinating series about climate proofing cities, published by The Guardian this August - shows a reflective road coating test underway in Los Angeles. That surface should give super-cool Angelenos even more reason never to remove their sunglasses.
photo : The Guardian
Closer to home, a BBC Radio 4 broadcast earlier this month dealt with the subject of Summer in the City: How can we adapt and prepare our cities for extreme weather conditions (there's time to catch up on iPlayer if you missed it). On a similar topic, The Guardian's Sweltering Cities series, published in August 2018, is very much worth sifting through.

But, as the BBC programme asks after showcasing one innovation after another, "Can you make a difference when you don't have any money?" While it makes sense to design cities in ways that will accommodate climate change, the more pressing issue for most countries is how to adapt existing buildings and districts to new realities - at an achievable cost.

The sounds cautiously positive in a recent article about Japan's determination to invest in disaster-mitigation measures. This 2017 article from is unfortunately more typical, offering practical solutions to hurricanes and flooding in US coastal cities while despairing of the political and economic will to make the necessary changes.
No need for retrofitting here!  The Incas, famously, used a mortar-less construction technique that allow buildings to absorb the movement caused by earth tremours and quakes. Actually, almost a third of the Machu Picchu site (above) has been reconstructed since 1911, so engineering timelines cannot guarantee that the pristine walls depicted above are indeed those that survived countless quakes over the last 600 years. But two-thirds of the site certainly did...

photo : via
If the Incas has been less well-prepared for the seismically active area they inhabited, the icon that is Machu Picchu might be nothing more than rubble today. Their construction technique is described for the non-professional in the Ancient History Encyclopaedia online.

For countries where historic structures have been less well prepared by their original engineers (in other words: most of them), how best to protect such buildings from collapse is a lively and growing area of engineering research. Using the example of the 2016 earthquake in Central Italy, Giuliana Cardani and Paola Belluco explore solutions to Reducing the Loss of Built Heritage in Seismic Areas. You can download their article in full.

Immediately in the wake of the same earthquake, the IET reported on promising research into the use of engineered, or "meta", materials to protect existing structures from seismic tremors. The short report in Engineering & Technology is worth reading.

New technologies sound expensive and, as ever, budget is a central issue. In the wake of the 2015 Nepalese earthquake that killed almost 9,000 people, an article in, suggests a low-tech solution to reducing such horrifyingly high mortality rates.
We end where we began... in Westminster, Central London. Sadly, unlike the mocked-up image that opens this newsletter, the photograph above is real. It's of tributes to the victims of the 2017 terror attack on pedestrians crossing Westminster Bridge. The incident made tragically clear that ways will need to be found to protect users of historic structures such as Grade II Listed Westminster Bridge from new forms of (human) threat.

photo : copyright BBC
Despite the massive challenge of climate change, it is not the only source of disaster that engineers can and do help to prevent.

In London, the shattering tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire and the ongoing enquiry into its causes have thrown fire engineering and fire prevention legislation very much into the spotlight.

High profile terrorist atrocities in European cities have raised questions about how best to fit historic public spaces for modern public safety. Conservation industry site,, frequently posts knowledgeable articles about the issues inherent in trying to balance the need to protect with the need to preserve. This article from 2004, when "terrorist threat" was understood to mean the threat of bombing, still makes interesting reading.

In 2017, terror attacks on Westminster Bridge and London Bridge changed perceptions of what may be involved in protecting their users from terrorism. The very recent inquests into the deaths resulting from the Westminster Bridge atrocity touch on the challenges inherent in protecting the public from unknown threat while also preserving that built heritage for the same public to enjoy.

London has more river bridges than any other major city (described in this article on engineering timelines), several of which are Listed. Siwan Hayward of Transport for London was interviewed in some detail about appropriate safety standards on Grade II Listed Westminster Bridge at the time of the attack. Interested readers can download the full transcript as a pdf: you'll find specific discussion about the design of the bridge from p16 onwards (pages 57-58, using the transcript's own numbering).

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