Over the last week, severe storms have hit Italy, bringing strong winds, heavy rain and intense flooding and resulting in 29 deaths as of November 4. Venice experienced the worst flood in a decade, with at least three-quarters of the city flooded by up to 61 inches of water above sea level. Although they regularly occur more than once a year, the floods have visibly increased in recent years; plans to circumvent these crises have stalled in Venice, as the city’s future faces a rapidly ticking clock.
At 61 inches, not only is the flooding the worst in a decade, but the fifth worst on city records. The city’s highest level of flooding at 76 inches was recorded in 1966. While high levels of flooding were once a rare occurrence, they now occur every four to five years, according to Paolo Canestrelli, founder of Venice’s Tide Monitoring and Forecast Centre. Additionally, low-level high tide flooding occurs up to four times a year.
The flooding has increased fears of damage to historical monuments in the city, which sustain regular salt water exposure. The flooding turned St. Mark’s square into a shallow lake and brought water into St Mark’s Basilica, submerging the marble pavement, Baptistery, and Zen Chapel. Salt water damages the marble structures but also puts entire monuments at risk, deteriorating their foundations and support structures.
As mentioned before, floods in Venice have never been uncommon: the city was built at sea-level centuries ago. Their frequency, however, has in the past few decades severely increased as a result of the effects of climate change. Average rises in global temperatures have contributed to rising sea-levels; in addition, as the city itself is slowly sinking as a result of time, this contributes to higher high tides every year. The city stopped its practice of pumping groundwater decades ago, as it was found that it contributed to land sinkage, but the issue still persists.
The presence of large cruise ships so close to the city, along with the city’s difficulty in handling the large influx of tourists during peak travel times, further compound the issue. If this rate of sea level rise and sinking of the city persists unchanged, scientists predict that Venice will be completely underwater by the end of this century.
the city regularly employs temporary measures during high tide flooding, but their MOSE project – which began construction in 2003 – is their only long term solution to the continuous high level flooding. Unfortunately, the project has stalled for a number of reasons: firstly, as the cost of construction has risen to US$6.3 billion, this has become one of the most ambitious “civil engineering endeavours in the world,” according to Business Insider. Further complicating the situation surrounding the construction arrangements, the Mayor was arrested in 2014 along with 35 others, on corruption charges relating to the awarding of construction contracts for the project, stalling it further.
Working as 78 synchronised gates strategically placed around the city, the collectively one mile long gates would all rise to stop water flowing into the city at tides of more than 43 inches. However, city officials, scientists, environmental groups, and the EU Commission have all questioned the project’s ability to protect the city, along with the project’s impact on the local oceanic habitat and environment. Further, there are concerns about the quality of the floodgates after they have been sitting idle in the sea for so many years, without adequate maintenance.
The future for Venice looks bleak. Even if MOSE is effectively completed by 2022 as the project purports, rising sea levels are only one part of the issue. The slow sinking of the city itself is not so easily solved; unless long-term measures are not taken soon, Venice’s rich history, its culture and beauty will disappear within the century. At the very least, Venice’s circumstances should spur other cities and countries in similar environmental predicaments to deal with the situation with utmost urgency.
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