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North Norfolk

Case study sites

Site description

Keywords: Barrier islands & saltmarshes

The North Norfolk Case Study site comprises a 45km long, north-facing coastline, between Old Hunstanton and Kelling Hard, characterised by both gravel and sand barriers, with an extensive (>2,000ha) saltmarsh area behind barrier islands, spits and areas of low-angle sands on open coasts. The barriers support various categories of sand dunes, from embryonic, mobile dunes to fixed dunes (in places with plantation forest), as well as saline lagoons. Landward margins are characterised by brackish reedbeds and freshwater grazing marshes in areas of reclaimed saltmarshes (>800ha). This mosaic of habitats is recognised internationally through the North Norfolk Coast Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Ramsar convection. There are important bird reserves at Titchwell and Cley which attract significant numbers of visitors. Four small river valleys make outfall at the coast. The hinterland is predominantly agricultural with small towns and villages developed around fishing settlements and medieval ports.

Why was this area selected?

This site was chosen as an example of an area where the natural environment is both a major source of revenue for the local economy via its contribution to tourism and recreational uses, and where the natural environment also plays a role in flood risk reduction from storm surges. This Case Study site differs from other Case Study sites due to its relative lack of development and low population density. Nevertheless it provides a good example of how long term shoreline management planning is taking place alongside emergency response planning. The recent storm surge (5-6 December 2013) also provides an opportunity to look at the efficacy of current measures in reducing risk from such extreme events and the resilience of the communities and local economy to such events.

Land, coastal and marine uses

Keywords: Nature reserve, Agriculture, Aquaculture, Residential use, Tourism, Energy production

The majority of this area falls within the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The area is largely owned by conservation or nature charities such as The National Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It is managed for nature conservation, and a variety of habitats are protected, such as saltmarshes and freshwater marshes. Other land uses include farming (agriculture and grazing), aquaculture (mussels and oysters) and recreational uses (birdwatching, seal watching, gillying, sailing/boating, walking and golf). There is also a small offshore fishery (crab, lobster, flatfish) and the Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm consisting of 88 wind turbines.


Keywords: Marine flood, Sea level rise

The shallow and relatively enclosed setting of the southern North Sea makes it susceptible to storm surges when low atmospheric pressure systems interact with high spring tides. The Highest Astronomical Tide reaches 4.0m over mean sea level but surge levels can exceed 5.0m over the mean sea level and cause extensive flooding. Some 15% of the frontage is characterized by natural defences and 50% by earth embankments (‘sea walls’). It has been calculated that with no further maintenance almost all defences will fail in the next 20 years; with the current maintenance regime, defence life is estimated at 40–80 years. By contrast, river flooding (including the effect that high tidal levels can have on river flooding, i.e. ‘tide locking’) is estimated at moderate to low risk. Predicted changes in tidal flood risk area as a result of predicted sea level rise of 1.1m by 2105 suggest that the number of properties that could become at risk of sea flooding might rise from currently 800 to approximately 1,500 in 2105.

Twenty one significant surge events have been recorded along this coastline between November 1897 and March 2007, with erosion, overtopping and breaching of both natural and artificial defences and extensive flooding of land and properties. The most devastating of these events was the storm surge of winter 1953 which resulted in large scale flooding, extensive damage and loss of life along the UK east coast. During the most recent event on winter 2013, water levels were higher than in 1953 in some places. However, in this occasion there was no loss of life; it is clear that strengthened defences, advances in storm surge forecasting, improved early warning systems and better-integrated crisis management averted a similar catastrophe 60 years later.

Socio-Economic losses & Environmental Impacts

Keywords: Property damage, Impact on tourism, Loss of habitat, Impact on agriculture

Impacts on livelihoods include extensive flooding of reclaimed marshes and loss of agricultural production; flooding of coastal settlements with disruption to shops and businesses, often related to recreational tourism in larger settlements; loss of sections of the coastal footpath, with knock-on effects to tourism (e.g. walking, bird-watching); disruption to inshore fisheries and the local shellfish industry; disruption to port activities at Wells; road flooding, including closure of the main west to east road network.

In the most recent storm surge in 2013, 40 residential properties and 27 businesses were flooded in the local communities and the main regional road was closed. The sea banks (embankments) were breached in numerous locations, also resulting in the Norfolk Coast Path National Trail being closed along several stretches. The nature reserves were affected in a number of ways: buildings were damaged; boardwalks, bridges, fences and bird hides were damaged, moved or washed away; and large volumes of debris (including rubbish, vegetation, boats and bridges) were deposited in various areas, including saltmarshes and car parks. The most heavily impacted environments were the freshwater marshes at Blakeney Freshes and the arable land (sown with winter wheat) and wildlife improvement area at Deepdale Marsh/Norton Marsh. Breaches in enclosing earth embankments saw these areas flooded with saltwater. In some areas there was cliffing and recession of high sand dunes and creation and reactivation of sand/gravel wash-over deposits behind low dunes. The gravel barrier between Cley and Weybourne was breached, with the flooding of the Cley freshwater marshes. Damage to wildlife included many dead birds being found in the strand line, and many orphaned seal pups needing to be cared for.

Partner in charge

University of Cambridge, Cambridge Coastal Research Unit

Members of the project’s end-users and stakeholders board

UK Environment Agency


For further information please download the factsheet (.pdf in English)


Photo Gallery

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North Norfolk 1

Fig.1: Habitats of the North Norflock coast (from the North Norflok Coastal Habitat Management Plan, 2003) and areas flooded by the storm surge of 5 December 2013.

 North Norfolk 2

Fig.2: Scolt Head Island 09.12.2013 (source: © Mike Page (