Sunday, July 6, 2008

Random tidbits about the Netherlands

I've had a few requests for a Dutch geography lesson, so I'll attempt that here along with a few other random thoughts. Disclaimer: I pulled the information from a variety of online sources. I *think* what I'm writing here is accurate - but I could be wrong. You get what you pay for :-).

To start, a lot of people think that Holland is the same as the Netherlands, but they're different. The Netherlands is the name of the country, and Holland refers to the name of just 2 provinces inside the Netherlands (North and South Holland). The country is bordered by the North Sea on the north and west, while Belgium is to the south and Germany is to the east. It sits at 52°23'N, 04°54'E which is further north than Vancouver and about on par with Newfoundland. Because it's so far north, it can stay light out until 10:30PM in the summer months. The summers are cool here with temperatures in the low 70s and the winters are supposedly mild due to the proximity to the North Sea (at least that's what they say - but I was here in February of 1997 and it was FREEZING). I've been told that 1997 was the last cold winter, but I'm still skeptical.

Much of the country (about 60%) is below sea level and they've had a horrible time with flooding over the years - but the Dutch are great engineers and they've got a solid system in place for preventing water from coming in from the sea and another good system for removing it.

To keep water from the seas out, the Dutch started the Deltaworks project. Between 1950 and 1997 the Dutch built a series of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm surge barriers. The American Society of Civil Engineers has declared the works to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

One of the most impressive projects that I've seen in person is the Maeslantkering which are storm surge gates near the port of Rotterdam. The gates took 6 years to build, and they're the largest moving structure on earth. They're about 60 feet tall and 600 feet long. When the storm surge from the sea is expected to be above 9 feet, the gates automatically close, protecting the port and surrounding areas from flooding. You might have seen the show about them on Discovery Channel's Modern Marvels series. They were used successfully for the first time in 1997, and are expected to be needed once every 10 years or so (or more frequently due to global warming).

There is also a system of pumps in the Netherlands to keep the land dry. Windmills used to be used for this function. As the sails on the windmill spun around, they turned an "Acrhimedes screw" down below. This screw moved water out of low lying areas and into irrigation ditches or lakes. It's all very fascinating, so if you're interested in a deep dive, just do a search online for "Delta Works."

After seeing the destruction from Katrina and the latest flood damage back in the US, I do wonder if we could take a few lessons in planning and engineering from our Dutch neighbors. They seem to have it down.

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