This storm season – spare a thought for Britain’s sunken neighbours

The storms of 2013 destroyed the ancient Porthcothan rock arch in Cornwall
The storms of 2014 destroyed the ancient Porthcothan rock arch in Cornwall

Britain’s been battered by storms this week, and it put me in mind of the cataclysmic storms of millennia gone by that were extreme enough to sink a neighbouring country.

We tend to think of the land bridge between England and Europe as just that: a bridge between two places. But it was, in fact, a country in its own right. A flat, fertile land full of lakes, where the Thames, Meuse, Scheldt, and Rhine rivers joined together and flowed out to the sea.

Doggerland does seem to have gradually shrunk as the sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age. Lakes merged with rivers and eventually fell into the sea, pushing people onto higher and higher ground. But what I find interesting is that the land didn’t just gradually sink as the sea rose over it. It seems that it disappeared suddenly and rapidly.

Doggerland, before the floods
Doggerland, before the floods

There are a few theories for how the North Sea suddenly flooded, but the main culprit is the Storegga Slide. In around 6,200 BC a part of the continental shelf around Norway was dislodged by an earthquake and caused a Mega-Tsunami. Waves would have been 80 metres high initially, and would have hit Doggerland at around 10 metres tall. A flood like this can be catastrophic for flat countries.

At around the same time, the remnant Laurentide Ice Sheet collapsed causing the largest North American freshwater pulse in 100,000 years. In a sudden and disastrous surge, the world’s sea level would have risen by 1.4 metres. A small part of Doggerland survived as an island until around 5000 BC. But Britain was suddenly an island, and it would have been the end of Doggerland.

The IPCC currently believes that in the 21st century, sea levels will rise by possibly as much as 82 centimeters. It’s important to note that in the past, climate change has involved sudden, rapid changes as well as gradual ones.

A strange aside is that this change wasn’t necessarily bad for the world. Freshwater pulses seem to be very good for nature as it can release nutrients. It can even be good for civilisation. The sea level rise displaced advanced farmers from the area now under the Black Sea and this seems to have spread the technology rapidly into Europe.

Climate change doesn’t mean the end of the world, or even the end of civilisation. It can be a very good thing for both.

But its easier to see the positives from a distance of a couple of millennia.


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