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Experts reveal Norfolk was devastated by mega-tsunami 8,000 years ago

PUBLISHED: 08:14 22 July 2020 | UPDATED: 08:15 22 July 2020

Prof Vince Gaffney from the University of Bradford has been researchingDoggerland, the lost landscape underneath the North Sea. Researchers have found proof of an ancient mega-tsunami which devasted the coastline near where Norfolk is now. Images: University of Bradford

Prof Vince Gaffney from the University of Bradford has been researchingDoggerland, the lost landscape underneath the North Sea. Researchers have found proof of an ancient mega-tsunami which devasted the coastline near where Norfolk is now. Images: University of Bradford

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Experts have found that large areas of Norfolk were devastated by a North Sea mega-tsunami 8,000 years ago - and it could happen again.

A map showing the area of research into the mega-tsunami off the Norfolk coast. Picture: University of BradfordA map showing the area of research into the mega-tsunami off the Norfolk coast. Picture: University of Bradford

Researchers from the University of Bradford have found fresh evidence that the cataclysm happened around 8,150 years ago, sending waves at least 40km inland from the Norfolk coast - which was then much further out than it is today.

And they warned that the event that triggered the mega-tsunami - a shifting of the seabed known as the Storegga Slide - could repeat itself as temperatures rose through climate change.

Dr Simon Fitch, from the university’s school of archaeological and forensic sciences, said the huge wave caused by the shift of Storegga - an area of seabed off Norway which is about the size of Scotland - happened during a period of global climate change.

Dr Fitch said: “It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it could happen again.

Prof Vince Gaffney, from the University of Bradford's School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, has been researching the mega-tsunami off Doggerland. Picture: University of BradfordProf Vince Gaffney, from the University of Bradford's School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, has been researching the mega-tsunami off Doggerland. Picture: University of Bradford

“One of the things [Storegga] has is gas hydrates, and they can become unstable when temperature rises. That would effectively cause another landslide.

“There are big ‘coulds’ but it’s serious enough that the Netherlands and some other countries have done investigative studies into it. Global warming does make me concerned that we are making conditions more favourable for it to occur.”

Dr Fitch said the power of such a wave - even if it “only” reached 20km inland from The Wash and north Norfolk, would be “phenomenal”.

Norfolk was once connected to mainland Europe by an area known as Doggerland, which gradually receded between 16,000 and 7,000 years ago.

Map showing location of Storegga Slide in 6200BC. It is thought the event caused an area of seabed the size of Scotland to shift, triggering a mega-tsunami. Picture: University of BradfordMap showing location of Storegga Slide in 6200BC. It is thought the event caused an area of seabed the size of Scotland to shift, triggering a mega-tsunami. Picture: University of Bradford

Dr Fitch said that when the mega-tsunami hit, Norfolk bulged upward to the Humber estuary. “It would have been greater Norfolk and Yorkshire then,” he said.

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Groundbreaking evidence of the wave has just been released by the university, after a couple of years’ study of a core taken about 40km off the coast of north Norfolk.

This core - a six-metre long cross-section of earth from beneath the seabed - confirmed the tsunami happened, and gave insights into what the Doggerland landscape that now lies underwater off the Norfolk coast once looked like.

A map illustrating the contraction of Doggerland over the millienia. Picture: UNIVERSITY OF BRADFORDA map illustrating the contraction of Doggerland over the millienia. Picture: UNIVERSITY OF BRADFORD

MORE: ‘How I found prehistoric human footprints’ - Norfolk man tells of amazing beach find

Dr Fitch said: “We drilled a large plastic pipe into the ground and recovered a very interesting core. The sequence had some unique and distinctive tsunami deposits in it, and this is the first core which has come from the North Sea which has the tsunami marker.

“It was cored a couple of years back but it has taken this long to get all the data together - extraordinary evidence needs extraordinary proof.”

At the time the tsunami hit Doggerland, a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer people could have been living in the area. Modelling suggests that much of the landscape may have returned to pre-tsunami conditions - but its longer-term fate was to be submerged as sea levels rose to those of the present day.

Dr Fitch said researchers extracted DNA of tree species including ash, elm, pine and oak from the core, which would have been left as the water from the tsunami receded.

The RV Belgica last year took an international team of scientists on a voyage off north Norfolk to collect more cores, in the hopes of understanding more about Doggerland. Picture: UNIVERSITY OF BRADFORDThe RV Belgica last year took an international team of scientists on a voyage off north Norfolk to collect more cores, in the hopes of understanding more about Doggerland. Picture: UNIVERSITY OF BRADFORD

He said: “The area where the core was taken was an estuary, but it goes to show the landscape surrounding the estuary was quite heavily wooded.”

MORE: Will the secrets of Doggerland - once Norfolk’s ‘neighbour’ - be revealed by North Sea discovery?

The research was carried out as part of a multi-university project called Europe’s Lost Frontiers, which is looking into Doggerland and the hunter-gatherer societies that once lived there.

The project’s principal investigator, Prof Vince Gaffney, also from Bradford, said: “Exploring Doggerland, the lost landscape underneath the North Sea, is one of the last great archaeological challenges in Europe.

“This work demonstrates that an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and scientists can bring this landscape back to life and even throw new light on one of prehistory’s great natural disasters, the Storegga tsunami.

An artist's impression of what Doggerland could have loooked like in the Mesolithic period, which took place between 9000BCE and 6000BCE. Image: WESSEX ARCHAEOLOGYAn artist's impression of what Doggerland could have loooked like in the Mesolithic period, which took place between 9000BCE and 6000BCE. Image: WESSEX ARCHAEOLOGY

“The events leading up to the Storegga tsunami have many similarities to those of today. Climate is changing and this impacts on many aspects of society, especially in coastal locations.”

Last year, scientists from Bradford as well as Ghent University and the Flanders Marine Institute embarked on an 11-day voyage to extract more cores focusing on two areas - ‘Southern River’ off the north Norfolk coast and ‘Brown Banks’ due east of Great Yarmouth.


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