Inside The Fight To Save Venice From Flooding

Juan Umbarila
As the city sinks and sea levels rise, Venice is fighting to stay afloat. In the long term, nature seems to have the upper hand.
Flooded Saint Mark's Square
Flooded Saint Mark’s Square. Photo: Kikuko Nakayama | Flickr

Venice, Italy’s City of Canals and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is facing a double existential threat: it is sinking, at the same time that sea levels are rising. More constant floods in the last decades are threatening Venice’s present, and could put it underwater in a not-so-distant future.

But Venice is fighting back for its existence, as it has done for centuries. Now that the threat is growing, defense measures have been growing too. From glass walls and a system of pumps and valves protecting precious sites such as Saint Mark’s Square, to a $7 billion mechanic defense wall separating the city lagoon from the outer Adriatic sea when high tides (Acqua Alta) come, Venice is managing to stay afloat, for now.

However, protective measures seem to be outpaced by the climate and natural forces. According to the New York Times, Venice’s average sea level has risen a foot since 1900, and the city is now sinking 2 millimeters per year. In the worst-case scenario, “The Floating City” could be underwater as early as 2100.

Winning Battles – Losing The War

MOSE mechanism illustration. Photo: Dage | Flickr

The main line of defense against rising waters is biblically called MOSE, an Italian acronym for Experimental Electromechanical Module designed to part the waters when deemed necessary.

Venice is located inside a shallow lagoon bordering the Adriatic Sea, with three inlets where natural flows between sweet and salty water take place. MOSE is a system of mechanical walls that can rise and block the sea when the high tides arrive.

The project was first announced and contracted in the 1980s to be finished by 1995, but technical delays, as well as decades-long corruption scandals, have made it so that only in 2020 was MOSE operational for the first time.

And it worked. By April 2023, MOSES’ walls have been risen 49 times, sparing the city of floods that could have otherwise been devastating, and offering Venetians and Tourists a long-needed sense of calm.

However, climate conditions have outpaced MOSES’ estimated use projections, which were set for an estimated rise rate of only five times a year. Water has risen so much that in the future MOSES’ walls would need to be up more often than down, creating a seal between the lagoon and the sea that would effectively turn Venice’s waters into a stinky swamp.

A Complicated Relationship With The Sea

The three inlets between Venice’s lagoon and the sea. Photo: Magistrato alle Acque di Venezia | Wikimedia Commons

Water has been Venice’s great protector, as well as its main threat, for more than a thousand years. Settlers first arrived on the islands as they were naturally protected from the invasions that would often take place inland.

A prosperous nation was then built as the Republic of Venice during the Renaissance, and the strategic position in a lagoon at the tip of the Adriatic Sea gave its islands the immense advantage to be protected as well as to deploy ships to dominate the entire Mediterranean.

But the muddy foundation of the lagoon, as well as being placed on top of the shifting Adriatic Tectonic Plate, and groundwater pumping during the 20th c., is making it sink steadily every year. On top of that, high tides have been higher and more common in the last two decades.

Will Venice still exist 70 years from now? The city is certainly fighting for its survival, and there are possible technological solutions that could help it do so, such as lifting it 12 inches through water injection to its foundations. But all of that is currently hypothetical. For now, it seems likely that nature will eventually claim it to the sea.

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