Skip to main content

Venice’s historic flooding blamed on human failure and climate change

Venice’s historic flooding blamed on human failure and climate change

/

An unfinished flood barrier system isn’t ready for rising sea levels

Share this story

ITALY-WEATHER-FLOODING-ALTA ACQUA-HIGH WATER-VENICE
Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

An extreme high tide inundated 85 percent of Venice on Tuesday night, drowning some parts of the city in six feet of water. Floodwaters pushed boats ashore and swept through buildings, swiping groceries off shelves and knocking library books into murky pools. Schools closed, a city council meeting was canceled. Residents and tourists navigated streets in waist-high waters. One man in his 70s died from electrocution as he tried to turn on a pump in his home. 

Exceptionally high tides similar to this one have taken place in the city roughly once every five years or so. But this year’s disastrous flooding is the worst it’s been since 1966. It’s the result of a confluence of risk factors involving the Moon, weather, sinking, a changing climate, and a billion-dollar project thrown off by political scandal. How the city navigates these issues moving forward could decide its future. And experts familiar with these problems say the city could have spared itself from today’s damage. 

“Venice is on its knees”

“Venice is on its knees,” Mayor Luigi Brugnaro tweeted on Wednesday. “We need everyone’s help to overcome these days that are putting us to the test.”

Ahead of the floods, a full Moon beamed over heavy rain and strong southerly winds, which all worked together to draw the tidewater up unusually high this week. The interplay between the Moon and wind around this time of year churns up what locals call acqua alta, or high water. When the water climbs to more than 140 centimeters (four and a half feet) above the hydrographic station at Punta della Salute, it’s considered an “exceptional” tide. 

Climate change is adding to the overflow of water. As ice melts and raises sea levels, high tides put Venice at greater risk. “These are the effects of climate change,” Brugnaro said in one of his tweets. “The costs will be high.” 

“I would argue that the number one danger is sea level rise,” Rafael Bras, provost at Georgia Tech and a professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences tells The Verge. But there’s another complicating factor. 

Venice has been called the floating city when, actually, it’s sinking. The city is made up of about 100 islands within a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. Thanks to shifting tectonic plates below and water pumped out of the ground for industrial use in the middle of the century, Venice sank almost five inches between 1950 and 1970, and it continues to subside by about one-fifth of an inch each year. 

frustration among scientists, policymakers, engineers

Venetians are acutely aware of these looming threats, and that’s why there’s frustration among scientists, policymakers, engineers, and advocates over why it wasn’t better able to prevent this week’s destruction. 

Jane da Mosto, an environmental scientist and executive director of the NGO We Are Here Venice, says that the biggest contributing factors to the destruction this week aren’t from Mother Nature but from human failures. “We need to improve the decision making. We need to improve the planning. We need to improve the science and technology behind big infrastructure,” she says.

Venice has spent more than $6 billion on a flood-barrier system nicknamed MOSE (a reference to the biblical story of Moses’ parting of the sea). That project encompasses a system of steel gates along three inlets in the lagoon that would be lifted during tides that reach higher than 3.6 feet above sea level. The project that broke ground in 2003 and initially had a 2011 deadline, would have provided protection from tides up to 10 feet tall. But it’s over budget, behind schedule, and beleaguered with a corruption scandal. Former mayor Giorgio Orsoni resigned in 2014 and was arrested along with other officials accused of embezzling millions of dollars in funds meant for the flood barriers. 

Venice could be underwater within 100 years

The flood barrier system has been controversial for other reasons. Environmentalists worry that it could harm the lagoon’s ecosystems. And as sea levels keep rising, the scheme’s utility comes with an expiration date. MOSE was designed to protect the city over the next 50 to 100 years, according to Bras, who served as the chair of an oversight committee for the project from 1995 to 2013. But that might not be enough. Recent studies have found that Venice could be underwater within 100 years if climate change continues unchecked. 

Still, the project buys the city time, Bras says. “The point here is that the danger is imminent, and the longer you wait, the worse it gets,” he tells The Verge. “The barriers will solve the problem and will have protected against the floods that we’re seeing today.”

“The problem is extremely complex, I really hope that this is a wake up call for the people who are in charge,” says Paola Rizzoli, a professor of physical oceanography at MIT who, along with Bras, previously served as a consultant on the MOSE project. But having grown up in Venice and survived the historic 1966 flood when she was in high school, she says, “I just trust the resilience of the city to survive.”

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Two hours ago Striking out

A
Andrew WebsterTwo hours ago
Looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.


A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
Image: Netflix
J
Twitter
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.


A
External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.


A
External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.


E
TikTok
Spain’s Transports Urbans de Sabadell has La Bussí.

Once again, the US has fallen behind in transportation — call it the Bussí gap. A hole in our infrastructure, if you will.


J
External Link
Jay PetersSep 23
Doing more with less (extravagant holiday parties).

Sundar Pichai addressed employees’ questions about Google’s spending changes at an all-hands this week, according to CNBC.

“Maybe you were planning on hiring six more people but maybe you are going to have to do with four and how are you going to make that happen?” Pichai sent a memo to workers in July about a hiring slowdown.

In the all-hands, Google’s head of finance also asked staff to try not to go “over the top” for holiday parties.


E
External Link
Insiders made the most money off of Helium’s “People’s Network.”

Remember Helium, which was touted by The New York Times in an article entitled “Maybe There’s a Use for Crypto After All?” Not only was the company misleading people about who used it — Salesforce and Lime weren’t using it, despite what Helium said on its site — Helium disproportionately enriched insiders, Forbes reports.


J
Youtube
James VincentSep 23
Nvidia’s latest AI model generates endless 3D models.

Need to fill your video game, VR world, or project render with 3D chaff? Nvidia’s latest AI model could help. Trained on 2D images, it can churn out customizable 3D objects ready to import and tweak.

The model seems rudimentary (the renders aren’t amazing quality and seem limited in their variety), but generative AI models like this are only going to improve, speeding up work for all sorts of creative types.