Illustration by John Watson

The forecaster who stops the Thames from flooding

Alan Atkin-Park, nicknamed “BarrierFace”, on ensuring the Thames Barrier protects London from a deluge
September 6, 2023

It’s the plot of a disaster movie (specifically Flood, from 2007): a storm, combined with unusually high tides, causes great waves to tear up the Thames estuary, overwhelming London’s defences and crashing through the city. Such apocalyptic scenes remain in the world of fiction, but in May, the Environment Agency warned that inner-London river defences would have to be raised by 2050, 15 years earlier than planned. And so I’ve come to the Thames Barrier—which spans 520m of river and protects 1.4m Londoners and £320bn in property—to ask one of the forecasters about the odds of a deluge.

Alan Atkin-Park, 40, proudly tells me that he’s known as “BarrierFace”. He’s a forecaster who reads data on tides and water levels that helps decide whether the barrier should close. He’s also an expert communicator and earned his nickname sharing updates—including flood warnings and snaps of superyachts—on X (formerly Twitter) as @AlanBarrierEA. A big part of his job, he says, is debunking myths: your beach hut in Southend hasn’t flooded because the barrier is closed. The barrier is closed because of the tides that flooded your beach hut. 

Atkin-Park, who meets me on his day off with his baby daughter in tow, is as old as the barrier itself: it was first used in 1983, and has held back around 100 tidal floods since then. (Atkin-Park has worked at the barrier since 2009.) He rejects the idea that it is under greater than expected pressure—there have been just two closures this year, despite rising sea levels. “Fortunately for us, they [the tides] are not rising as quickly as they expected in the 1970s,” he says. “We actually think, with ongoing maintenance, we can keep [the barrier] operational till 2070. That’s an extra 40 years of life.”

Like your grandmother’s lawnmower, the Thames Barrier still works incredibly well

There will be tense moments ahead. In the winter between 2013 and 2014, two months of consistent rain led to an excess of 520 cubic metres of water per second pouring down the Thames; the barrier had to be closed 50 times to protect places such as Teddington, near Hampton Court. That wears down the middle-aged infrastructure. Atkin-Park did 10 nightshifts in a row. In the winter of 2030 and 2031, tides are predicted to be particularly high. And in the years in-between, there will be tides that “don’t always do what is expected… tides that misbehave.” 

“But you know what? We are still prepared for it. There’s no danger… we haven’t ever come close to overtopping. I think the biggest tide we’ve seen here, there was still 1.8 metres of room between the top of the river and going over the barriers themselves. There’s still masses of room for manoeuvre.”

Atkin-Park clearly loves his job. He tells me about the rigour of the 60-page procedure that’s followed every time there’s a closure, about how the river is closed to traffic and how it takes 90 minutes for the gates to shut, starting at the banks of the river and moving inwards. Forecasting now means that they can know two to three days in advance whether a closure is coming. He tells me that there are two of everything: two underwater tunnels for workers, two hydraulic arms to move each gate, multiple power supplies in case the grid was ever to fail. The kit is old now but, Atkin-Park says, “like your grandmother’s lawnmower from back then, they still work incredibly well.”

London has been flooded by the Thames before—it was a 1953 tidal surge that killed 307 in eastern England and sent waters pouring into the city’s east end that set engineer Mary Kendrick and others onto the idea of building a barrier. Climate change means without action it will become exposed to flooding again. But we are, Atkin-Park says, “some way off the Flood… despite what people might say.”