CAN VENICE, ITALY—THE CROWN JEWEL OF THE ADRIATIC—BE SAVED?
By Budd Titlow
I’ve had the good fortune to visit Venice, Italy several times. Not only is Venice one of the world’s most entrancingly beautiful cities, but it also is unrivaled for its setting and urban design. Strolling along the narrow, winding city streets is like suddenly being transported to the middle of a Giorgione landscape painting. The unparalleled sights—the gondoliers poling their ornate craft along the shimmering canals, the rippling reflections of multi-hued flags and flower baskets, the armadas of boats of every size and color—are at once both iconic and unforgettable.
Sadly, even though Venice has been around for a very long time—founded in 421 C.E. —it would never be built in today’s world. That’s because there is no contiguous landmass under the city. Yes that’s right, Venice is essentially a collage of grand and sacred structures that are floating on top of an archipelago of 117 islands scattered throughout a shallow lagoon of the Adriatic Sea.
As you can imagine, sea level rise has always been a particular concern for this flood-prone city. Now on top of the rising sea level problem, comes the realization that Venice is still sinking—a problem that was thought to have been resolved in the 1970’s by ceasing groundwater withdrawals for factory use.
Tourists avoiding sea-level rise in San Marco Square, Venice, Italy.
Enter the city’s expensive and oft-delayed system of underwater so-called MOSE barriers —named as a nod to Moses and his parting of the Red Sea. Blasting the city’s engineering budget at a total cost of more than $6.7 billion, MOSE consists of a series of steel gates installed at the three inlets separating the Adriatic Sea from the lagoon surrounding Venice.
Many Venetians remain skeptical of the MOSE project due to the high costs and concerns over environmental risks. When the flood barriers are raised, they trap the considerable pollution and untreated sewage—Venice has no modern sewage treatment system—within the confines of the city’s lagoon and famous canals. While the gates are up, the contamination is not able to dissipate and dilute itself as it normally does when it drains out into the Adriatic.
NASA climatologist Vivien Gormitz, a contributor to the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, thinks estimates of high water events are conservative scenarios and the reality could be much worse. “Sea levels are already rising faster than forecast in the IPCC’s estimates”, said Gornitz. If sea levels rise more than 1.7 feet by 2100, MOSE—which can only cope with 2.0 feet of increase—may be insufficient to save the city. Because of this, Venice needs to quickly look into alternatives. For example, pumping seawater into a 2,297-foot deep aquifer below the lagoon could buoy the city by as much as one foot over a decade.
Whether or not any of these rather dramatic engineering concepts work out, I have my concerns that they may not be able to save this Italian jewel of the sea for the long term. Something tells me that if we don’t simply put a halt to the global rising sea levels as soon as possible, this entire colossus of artistic and cultural glories may slip beneath the waters of the Adriatic never to be seen again. And that would be a shame, indeed, especially for those who have never had the opportunity to experience her visual delights.
Text excerpted from book: PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books.
Photo caption & credit: Tourists avoiding sea-level rise in San Marco Square, Venice, Italy. Copyright Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.