Friday, June 8, 2012

Netherlands be dammed!

After a day spent in a miniature Holland and amongst the windmills we were off to explore the Delta region of the Netherlands. The Rhine, Maas and Scheldt estuaries form a complicated network of islands, headlands and channels which would all be several meters underwater during a storm surge (as well as a good part of the rest of the Netherlands) if not for the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier.

The Haringvlietgates - facing inward, towards land

During normal tides the islands and peninsulas are protected by high dunes, and the banks of the rivers are strengthened by dikes, but during a storm water levels and high tides can drastically change. The 1421 St. Elizabeth day floods that gave Kinderdijk its name killed 10,000 people when six villages were completely inundated. More recently 1,835 people died and 500,000 were left homeless in 1953, when on January 31st low atmospheric pressure and high tides caused the dikes to fail in multiple places.

Because of these tragedies four main dams were built to close off the inlets of the North Sea. To allow ship traffic to continue as normal, two have locks. Initially four secondary dams were built to provide protection during the construction of the main dams. The “Delta Plan” was finally finished forty years later, in 1997.

The Haringvlietgates, facing seaward

The dams accomplish the following: they shorten the coastline by about 435 miles, they form several freshwater lakes, they limit the risk of flooding, they reduce saltwater seepage into the water table and they increase recreation and development in the area. I’m curious as to the effect on wildlife, would the change from saltwater inlet to freshwater lake not drastically alter the estuary habitat, especially for plant life and amphibian species?

Inside the Haringvlietgates

We stopped to take a tour of the Haringvlietgates, the largest floodgates in the world. In addition to functioning as part of the Oosterscheldedam, they also hold saltwater out. During high tide they close, but at low tide they allow the flow of freshwater out. 60% of the Maas and Rhine rivers flows through its gates. These were in the process of being closed as we toured, but the movement was not detectable as they close at a rate of 1 cm/second. The tour took us through the interior of the structure under the freeway that runs on the top, and we saw the giant hydraulic mechanism that powers the gates and enjoyed a good view of this awesome man-made structure. If traveling in the area and curious about the dikes, I would suggest a stop at Expo Haringvliet. A quirky alternative to the commercialized Waterland Neeltje Jans farther south, the eccentric roadside stop has an attached museum, restaurant, children’s playground and petting zoo.

I think all three need a haircut, wearing a hat is only a temporary fix!

The drive south along the coast was more of the same, giant dams and bridges keeping the Netherlands above water. We took a slight detour to the town of Veere, a sailing center and resort. Historically a fishing village as the Veerse Meer was connected to the sea before the dam was built, the town has luckily survived the change and seemed to be full of character and charm. The old town hall was worth a look with the elaborate decoration and carillon of 48 bells.

Finally we crossed the Westerschelde, a saltwater inlet that remains undammed. Not long after we were over the border leaving the old windmills, tulips and storm barriers behind for a taste of Belgian chocolate, moules and waffles and a glimpse of Brugge and Brussels

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I've really enjoyed reading all about your vacation!


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