Towards a vulnerability assessment of the UK and northern European coasts: The role of regional climate variability

M. N. Tsimplis, D. K. Woolf, T. J. Osborn, S. Wakelin, J. Wolf, R. Flather, A. G. P. Shaw, P. Woodworth, P. Challenor, D. Blackman, F. Pert, Z. Yan, S. Jevrejeva

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Within the framework of a Tyndall Centre research project, sea level and wave changes around the UK and in the North Sea have been analysed. This paper integrates the results of this project. Many aspects of the contribution of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) to sea level and wave height have been resolved. The NAO is a major forcing parameter for sea-level variability. Strong positive response to increasing NAO was observed in the shallow parts of the North Sea, while slightly negative response was found in the southwest part of the UK. The cause of the strong positive response is mainly the increased westerly winds. The NAO increase during the last decades has affected both the mean sea level and the extreme sea levels in the North Sea. The derived spatial distribution of the NAO-related variability of sea level allows the development of scenarios for future sea level and wave height in the region. Because the response of sea level to the NAO is found to be variable in time across all frequency bands, there is some inherent uncertainty in the use of the empirical relationships to develop scenarios of future sea level. Nevertheless, as it remains uncertain whether the multi-decadal NAO variability is related to climate change, the use of the empirical relationships in developing scenarios is justified. The resulting scenarios demonstrate: (i) that the use of regional estimates of sea level increase the projected range of sea-level change by 50% and (ii) that the contribution of the NAO to winter sea-level variability increases the range of uncertainty by a further 10-20 cm. On the assumption that the general circulation models have some skill in simulating the future NAO change, then the NAO contribution to sea-level change around the UK is expected to be very small (> 4 cm) by 2080. Wave heights are also sensitive to the NAO changes, especially in the western coasts of the UK. Under the same scenarios for future NAO changes, the projected significant wave-height changes in the northeast Atlantic will exceed 0.4 m. In addition, wave-direction changes of around 20° per unit NAO index have been documented for one location. Such changes raise the possibility of consequential alteration of coastal erosion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1329-1358
Number of pages30
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number1831
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2005

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