Environmental management – guidance

The Thames Barrier

How the Thames Barrier works, and when it is scheduled to close.

The Thames Barrier is one of the largest movable flood barriers in the world. The Environment Agency runs and maintains the Thames Barrier as well as London’s other flood defences.

You can follow us on Twitter @AlanBarrierEA or read our gov.uk blog posts.

Photograph of the Thames Barrier
The Thames Barrier

Forthcoming scheduled closures

The Environment Agency operates the Thames Barrier every month for maintenance and testing. Once a year, they also test the barrier at a high spring tide (normally September or October). They may begin closing and re-opening the gates up to an hour before the times listed below.

  • Monday 8 August 2016 10.40am to 1.10pm
  • Monday 5 September 2016 09.45am to 12.15pm
  • Sunday 2 October 2016 08.25am to 6.25pm - annual closure
  • Monday 7 November 2016 10.35am to 1.05pm
  • Monday 5 December 2016 09.40am to 12.10pm
  • Tuesday 3 January 2017 09.40am to 12:10pm
  • Wednesday 1 February 2017 09.35am to 12.05pm
  • Thursday 2 March 2017 09.25am to 11.55am
  • Wednesday 12 April 2017 08.40 to 11.10am

Very occasionally, the Environment Agency may need to change or cancel a closure at short notice. Please call the Thames Barrier to check: 020 8305 4188. You can find out if the Thames Barrier is currently closed by calling Floodline on 0345 988 1188 and using the quickdial code 011134.

Forecasting closures

The Environment Agency receives information on potential tidal surges from weather satellites, oil rigs, weather ships and coastal stations. They can forecast dangerous conditions up to 36 hours in advance, and will close the barrier just after low tide, or about 4 hours before the peak of the incoming surge tide reaches the barrier.

They get information from a range of mathematical computer models that forecast expected sea and river levels. This is supplemented by data from the Met Office and real-time information provided by the UK National Tidegauge Network. This hydrological and meteorological data is fed into the control room every minute from a wide network of tide, river, pressure and wind gauges.

The decision to close, or not, is based on a combination of 3 major factors:

  • the height of the tide (usually a spring tide) measured at the Thames Estuary
  • the height of the tidal surge, which naturally accompanies each tide
  • the river flow entering the tidal Thames, measured as it passes over Teddington Weir

Find up-to-date data for river and sea levels at the Thames Estuary and Teddington Weir.

The barrier has no individual trigger level for closure. The closing process is guided by a mathematical matrix that considers the river flow, tide and surge at the time. The final decision for closure lies with the Thames Barrier Duty Controller.

How the Thames Barrier works

The Thames Barrier spans 520 metres across the River Thames near Woolwich, and it protects 125 square kilometres of central London from flooding caused by tidal surges. It has 10 steel gates that can be raised into position across the River Thames. When raised, the main gates stand as high as a 5-storey building and as wide as the opening of Tower Bridge. Each main gate weighs 3,300 tonnes.

The barrier is closed under storm surge conditions to protect London from flooding from the sea. It may also be closed during periods of high flow over Teddington Weir to reduce the risk of river flooding in some areas of west London including Richmond and Twickenham.

The Thames Barrier will then remain closed over high water until the water level downstream of the Thames Barrier has reduced to the same level as upstream. This is a managed process to provide for different circumstances, and takes about 5 hours. The Thames Barrier is then opened, allowing the water upstream to flow out to sea with the outward-bound tide.

You can watch a video that shows how the Thames Barrier works:

a video of how the Thames Barrier works

Thames Barrier closures

The Thames Barrier has been closed 176 times since it became operational in 1982 (correct as of April 2016). Of these closures, 89 were to protect against tidal flooding and 87 were to protect against combined tidal/fluvial flooding.

Thames Barrier closures since 1983
Thames Barrier closures since 1983

If you have an enquiry about the Thames Barrier, or would like to receive a project pack, email: kslenquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk.

The future of the Thames Barrier

The Thames Estuary 2100 plan sets out how flood risk will be managed in the Thames estuary to the end of the century and beyond. It also recommends what actions the Environment Agency and others will need to take in the short term (the next 25 years), medium term (the following 15 years) and long term (to the end of the century).

The plan is based on current guidance on climate change, but is adaptable to changes in predictions for sea-level rise and climate change over the century.

More information can be found on the Thames Estuary 2100 page .

Visiting the Thames Barrier

Extra additional opening hours for the summer holidays

The café and Information Centre will be open 7 days a week, from Monday 25 July to Sunday 4 September 2016.

The Thames Barrier Information Centre is located here:

1 Unity Way
Woolwich
London
SE18 5NJ

For more information on how to get to here, please download our location map (PDF, 689KB, 1 page) .

The Thames Barrier Information Centre is a small exhibition centre where you can learn how the Thames Barrier was designed and built, and how it works. It is open to the public from 10.30am to 5pm from Thursday to Sunday (last entrance is at 4.30pm) and open 7 days a week during summer holidays. Carers accompanying disabled visitors are admitted free of charge.

Find more information on prices for Thames Barrier Information Centre (PDF, 85.8KB, 2 pages) .

You can come and enjoy the views of the Thames Barrier from our grounds and café.

Thames Barrier Annual Closure Sunday 2 October 2016

Come and join us throughout the day to see the Thames Barrier in operation and meet some of our teams with displays on their past, present and future work at the Thames Barrier and Environment Agency. There will also be an area with activities and games throughout the day for the children.

The 3 key times below are when you will see the barrier gates move. Please do ensure you are on site earlier than advertised times for the gate movements as these times are approximate and subject to change.

When the gates have been raised 90 degrees, the barrier is now fully closed in the defence position. As the tide continues to come in, a higher level of water will build up downstream of the barrier and creating a differential in water level on either side of the gates. Shortly after high water or high tide, the gates will be further rotated by 28 degrees (or roughly 2 metres) into what is called the ‘underspill’ position.

Underspill allows the higher downstream water level of the river to rush through underneath the gates to shorten the amount of time it takes for the upstream and downstream water levels to equal. It also creates a white rush effect of water behind each of the gates, stirring up the riverbed and attracting many birds which come to feed on the small fish interested in the white rush water and the food it provides. The underspill continues for approximately 2.5 hours.

Annual closure timings

Thames Barrier gates raised into flood defence position at 8.25am Gates move to underspill position at 3pm Barrier gates lowered and River re opens at 6.25pm

Café & Information Centre open 8am – 6.30pm (entrance fee to Information Centre applies) Teams display stands 10.30am – 6pm (free) Car parks 7.30am – 7pm (£2.50 a day)

Please call 0208 305 4188 for more information.

Group talks

Once a month, you can pre-book onto a guided group talk at the Thames Barrier. Please note, due to security, there is no access onto the Thames Barrier Structure itself. It is not suitable for children under the age of 5. This offer is not available to groups over 5 people.

Group talks are £6.00 per person and full payment is required in advance when you call to book your date. The table below shows the available dates.

Date Time
Sunday 1 May 1pm
Sunday 5 June 1pm
Sunday 3 July 1pm
Sunday 7 August 1pm
Sunday 4 September 1pm

To book, email us at: thamesbarrierenquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk or call on 0208 305 4188

You can also arrange larger group visits (for more than 5 people) by filling in this booking form (MS Word Document, 628KB) and emailing it to: thamesbarrierenquiries@environment-agency.gov.uk.