Venice Dispatch: Abnormal Acqua Alta?

The recent news out of Venice has been bleak: the historic city has been flooded by a very high tide. Tourists are wearing hip waders in Piazza San Marco, many buildings have at least a few feet of water in their ground level, and at least two people have died.

An acqua alta at night (picture from public domain)

Every autumn, Venice experiences a high tide event, what Venetians call an acqua alta. These are normal, caused by seasonal winds, and have been recorded for millennia. In fact, the first recorded acqua alta occurred in the year 782.

What’s not normal this year is the height of the tide: the second highest in recent history. This week Venice experienced a water level of 6 feet. The only time it was higher in recently recorded history happened in 1966 when it hit 6 feet 3 inches.

The 1966 acqua alta (picture from public domain)

Venice, already quite fragile from its unique geography and inundated with too many tourists and cruise ships, will have a lot of drying and digging out to do.

It will also have to do a lot of thinking: How will it handle future acqua altas? Could they even be worse than this?

The mayor of Venice, who called for a state of emergency, attributes this unusually high acqua alta to climate change (you probably already know this, but “global warming” is a misnomer of what is happening to our planet; the term “climate change” captures this better in that it indicates the more extreme weather events the world has been experiencing, cold, hot, and otherwise). Assuming his theory is true, then with more than 11,000 scientists saying climate change is only going to get worse, with rising sea levels, and with Venice sinking, the city may have to take extreme measures.

One measure it has already taken is building a dam to help block the lagoon tides. Entitled MOSE, this controversial project is not yet complete and already overrun with costs. Will it ever even be finished? And if it is, will it be enough?

What will happen to Venice and its inhabitants? No one knows, but despite their misgivings about tourism, the reality is that Venice still needs the dollars it brings – perhaps to rebuild and perhaps more than ever.

I took this photo of the Grand Canal in January 2013.



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