Venice has a long and complicated history with water.
The city lies across 118 small islands in a swampy lagoon, separated by the Adriatic Sea by just a thin stretch of land. The islands are divided by narrow canals allowing boats in and out, as well as, ahem, the sea. When the tide rises, the seawater enters into the lagoon and at low tide the water exits.
In the winter seawater levels can rise, causing parts of the city to flood.
Italy-lovers might have heard that the world’s beloved Venice has been completely flooded with seawater this month. You might have seen pictures of tourists wading through hip-high water in places that were once dry land. Perhaps you’ve even heard of the region’s hometown term of acqua alta and seen that this year, the annual acqua alta is anything but routine. In any case, here’s what this acqua alta is all about:
What is Acqua Alta?
Literally “high water,” the acqua alta in Venice is any tide higher than the usual 80 centimeters above sea level.
In late autumn and early winter, namely November and December, strong winds, rain and sloshing standing water (known as seiche) often cause higher-than-usual tides in the lagoon, flooding parts of the city with sea water.
At 80 centimeters the water covers just a small part of the city, including St. Mark’s Piazza and Dorsoduro neighborhood, under a couple of centimeters of water at each high tide.
The tides switch about every six hours and if acqua alta occurs, it only lasts during the peak of the high tide, ranging from two to four hours.
Is this normal in Venice?
Venice and the Venetians have always coped with the acqua alta – the first reported high tides hail from 782 AD. Venetian business have glass barricades at their doors, most have water pumps and every true Venetian resident has a pair of galoshes or rain boots. In most cases, these are only really needed for the few hours the tide is in, until it rolls out again.
When the tide reaches 110 centimeters, citizens are alerted by sirens and text messages, elevated platforms are set up along main streets to allow passage and the city’s water buses still run. It’s considered molto sostenuta and definitely affects more of the city, but still manageable and historically happened only a few times a year.
What’s less normal, however, are exceptionally high tides. Every five years or so Venice suffers what they call an “exceptionally high tide,” or any tide more than 140 centimeters or 4.5 feet above sea level, nearly double the amount of a normal acqua alta.
It seems that exceptionally high tides have become much more common in recent years. Acqua alta has always been normal, but not at this frequency and force. Rising sea levels and a sinking city has only worsened the tides, especially this year.
What happened this year?
This year Venice has seen four exceptionally high tides in November alone, and the month isn’t over yet! On November 12, the tide reached 184 centimeters, 6 feet, above sea level.
This is the highest acqua alta in Venice since 1966 and the second-highest since records began in 1923.
Most of Venice sits just slightly over 1 meter above sea level. At 184 centimeters approximately 80% of the UNESCO World Heritage city is underwater.
So far Venice has reported that St. Mark’s crypt and mosaic floor have been damaged, the baroque church of St. Moses and the city university, located in a 15th-century Gothic palace, have been flooded and at least one person has died from electrocution and another was found dead at home.
St. Mark’s Basilica has been flooded for only six times in the last 1,200 years, but according to The Guardian, four of those six times were in the last two decades.
Can I still go to Venice?
With regular annual acqua alta, you can sit tight and wait for the water to recede in a few hours or even put on your boots and keep moving.
With the right gear and attitude, you can definitely visit Venice during the acqua alta season, but personally, I wouldn’t.
Let me specify: If it’s typical acqua alta, then you can definitely still visit Venice. Acqua alta around 80 centimeters or so is not dangerous. In the past, tourists had fun wading through historical sites in rain boots and experiencing an odd occurrence in a spectacular locale.
The city sets up narrow wooden walkways that turn into a risky game of chicken as people who would normally fill an entire piazza jostle for space above the water. Some visitors have fun swimming above a historical square or give up and take off their socks and shoes to explore the city, but they should think twice. The water that floods the city is highly polluted, brackish sea water mixed with the sewage waste that continues to be dumped into the canals.
If the annual acqua alta turns into an exceptionally high tide, like this year, I’d especially avoid the city.
You’d be gawking as a city is knocked on its knees.
People are barricaded in their homes. People have died. A nearly 1,000-year-old Basilica is underwater. Why would you want to go there now?
For all the public condemnation and laments, Venice almost completely relies on its tourism. BBC.com reported that, “Small business owners and vendors in the city were appealing to tourists, many of whom had left the city after the water levels rose, to return.”
But also, if you happen to be there during “exceptionally high tides,” you’ve effectively placed yourself in a state of emergency. People might need help. Murano, Burano and the other islands are off-limits as they are lower and more exposed. Many of the most popular places in the city are likely to be closed. And let’s not forget: the entire city is filled with brackish sea and sewer water! If I had any possibility to change my itinerary and reroute it from the city during the high tides, I’d choose to do that.
Historically, the tourist season in Venice ended by November and picked back up again come Carnival. Now we know why.
What is Venice going to do?
After days of flooding, Premier Giuseppe Conte declared a state of emergency for Venice and other parts of Veneto, appropriating 20 million euros for the most “urgent interventions” in the devastated city. “[We’re ] working on the plan for compensation for private citizens, shopkeepers and traders, and to refinance the special law for Venice,” Conte explained in a tweet.
Venice’s mayor Luigi Brugnaro has said the damage is in the hundreds of millions of euros.
Beyond immediate repairs and restorations, the city needs to find a way to protect itself against the sea. Venice’s buildings are built upon wooden timbers driven underwater into the ground. Brick and marble foundations were then laid on top, creating solid (if not porous) foundations. Even so, the city itself sinks some millimeters every year as the marshy sediment of the ground underneath shifts, sinks and settles. Not only that, but sea levels are rising and weather phenomenons are growing longer and stronger.
It took nearly 40 years after the 1966 flood for the city to come up with a plan to try and save Venice. The MOSE project, named after the acronym for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico or Moses parting the Red Sea, you pick, began in 2003. After a decade of starts and stops, corruption and bribery, the offshore underwater dam system was tested in 2013 but still not expected to be operational until nearly 2022.
Massive underwater gates are meant to close when water gets too high, blocking the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea and protecting the beautiful sinking city and its residents. Still, as the acque alte get more and more alte, residents, commentators and tourists alike might easily wonder: can a wall block out overtourism, ever-rising waters and fiercer and fiercer weather?
It seems that the exceptionally high tide of this year – the worst in decades – is behind us for now, as tourists return and residents pump out their businesses and homes. Though they did everything right, protecting their homes, using pumps, even continuing regularly scheduled trash pick up in the worst of the storm, what’s left in the wake is a river of trash in the streets and squares and the damage of a true world patrimony.