Is Venice sinking?

high water veniceIs Venice sinking? The simple answer is, Yes she is. But it’s a very slow process. As an average, the soil on which she stands is 1,2 millimeters lower each year. That’s not much, but then again, every centimeter lower means higher tide. And the famous Venice high water is a huge problem already at the levels of today.

This is called subsidence. And it’s more or less the same as in other comparable cities.

Venice stands on water and therefore the groundwater level is an important issue.

After the 2nd world war, came the industrial boom.

The Harbor on the mainland, Porto Marghera, with its huge industrial area, expanded and new factories were constructed on a daily basis. For the construction and even more so for the production they needed water. And the water was taken from the soil… the groundwater. This lowered the levels and all of the surrounding lands paid the consequences. Venice started sinking more and when the subsidence reached ten times the one we have today, someone had to do something about it. In 1969 it was 14millimeters per year.

So new regulations where instituted and violations where prosecuted. Then new water pipelines where constructed, and Venice actually re-bounced. In 1975 the city rose almost 20 millimeters. After that, the subsidence has stabilized at a perfectly normal level.

But there is another threat, and a more dangerous one…

The eustatism, the rising sea level. Globally this figure is 3,2 millimeters per year (NOAA). In the Adriatic Sea, it’s less but when you think of it, it’s all really just one big bowl of water. If levels rise in the Atlantic and the Pacific it’s just a matter of time before the water flows into the Mediterranean. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) estimates a rise of sea level globally of 1 meter at 2100.

Well, at 1meter plus 12 centimeters of subsidence…. then it doesn’t really matter if Venice is sinking or not.

venice high water
High Tide over 120 centimeters. 10 years periods

In 1966 we had the highest high tide in the history of the city, the so-called Aqua Granda. The sea level reached 196 centimeters over main sea level, wiped out most of the services, and caused immeasurable material damage to all of the territory. A new awareness of the vulnerability of the city started to grow among politicians locally and nationally. Something had to be done to protect this unique place with it’s fantastic palaces and millennial history to future generations. Because in the later years the high water is becoming more frequent.

the MOSE project Venice

And so a solution is at hand.

After 30 years of various projects, drafts, and quarrel finally in 2003, the MOSE was initiated. The name stands for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, Experimental Electromechanical Module. It’s a huge project where enormous floodgates block the passage at the three inlets to the lagoon. In normal circumstances, they lie flat to the bottom but when high tide sets in, air is pumped into the gates and they rise up and close the straits. At least that’s the idea.

The reality is that after 15 years it’s not even completed. And now we enter a dark tunnel of corruption and politicians and industrialists holding hands… The money is floating out of the project like water through a colander.

In February 2013 the first arrest took place, followed by another 50 or so in the year and a half that followed. Among them, many high ranked politicians and public administrators. The Venice Major Giorgio Orsoni had to resign in 2014 all because of this. 

Since then the progress is almost at a standstill. Today the completion is estimated at 94% and the building site is in the hands of ANAC, the National Anti-corruption Authority. But the lack of financing not only stops the progress but since it’s a very technically advanced project and we’re talking about the bottom of a soft, muddy and very rich environment, we actually go backward. Now already before it’s completed it needs maintenance for tens of millions. For example; all the mechanics lying there on the muddy bottom is full of sludge, clams, and algae to an amount where operating it becomes difficult or impossible. To clean one of the sluice ports the estimated cost would be 1,5 million euro while buying a new one costs 1 million. There’s a sustainable society for you…

To conclude:

Venice will face many challenges in the decades to come. Some of them we can overcome with a bit of hard work while others are more difficult. Of all the threats to the existence of La Serenissima, the rising sea level is the greatest. No doubt about it.

But if the oceans rise a meter or two, maybe we will all have bigger problems to face than to worry about if Venice is sinking…

Update February the 3rd 2019.

Early in the morning Wednesday, January the 30ththe last of the 78 sluice ports in the MOSE project was installed. It was number 11 of the Lido south-line consisting of 20 ports, each one 20 meters wide, 27 meters high and 4 meters thick. Still, it’s not operational though. A lot of the electronics and control mechanisms are not yet in place. But the intention is to start testing the single ports of the other lines, 4 or 5 at a time already in February. And maybe, just maybe have the whole system operative in late 2021.

We’ll see about that…