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

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

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,” 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.

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.

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.”