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What can be done to save Venice from ‘sinking’?

Venice, known for its amazing canals, bridges and gondola rides, is going through a major crisis. It is starting to see a sharp decline in residents as more than 100 islands inside a lagoon are being swallowed up. Over a generation, Central Venice has lost roughly a third of its residents, even as tourism numbers have steadily increased. Ironically, the floating city is slowly sinking.

In 2019, Venice suffered from the worst floods in decades. Venetian waters reached 1.87 meters that year, the second-highest level since official records began in 1923. Tourists were especially affected by this phenomenon in St. Mark’s Square, one of the lowest and most popular parts of the city. St Mark’s Basilica has flooded six times in 1200 years, four of these floods in the 21st century alone.

Strong winds in the Adriatic Sea drove a northeast windstorm that inundated Venice last month due to high spring tides as well as a meteorological storm surge. Whenever these two events coincide, we get what is known as Acqua Alta (high water). This latest Acqua Alta occurrence in Venice is the second highest tide in recorded history. According to the top ten tides, five of them happened within the last 20 years and the latest was only last year. The Mediterranean Sea is projected to rise by 140 centimeters over the next century, making the problem worse.

A moored gondola on the Grand Canal sits at a standstill in Venice, Italy, on the second day of an unprecedented lockdown across the country to contain the coronavirus outbreak, March 11, 2020. In turn, many of Venice’s monuments could be threatened. When the salt infiltrates the materials of these buildings, it crystallizes, and when the weather becomes drier, it ascends vertically. The incident will lead to Venice’s buildings ‘expanding, cracking or even exploding’, says Chaira Bertolin, associate professor at Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Venice’s increasing flooding can partly be attributed to climate change, but human activity has also played a role in the problem. Sediment beneath the city is compacting under the weight of new construction and the millions of tourists who visit. Venice’s fragile lagoon has also been affected by the increase in cruise ships entering the city, which creates artificial waves that pound the foundations and infrastructure. Significantly, decades of digging and reshaping the delta to accommodate bigger cruise ships has allowed more water into the city.

Since 2003, a project has been underway to prevent flooding in the city, and it will be completed this year. The MOSE project aims to build a series of large barriers or floodgates that will close the lagoon when water levels rise too high. A successful test of MOSE was conducted in 2013, but the project has been held up by scandals and increasing costs. The bill for this project has been estimated at USD 6 billion since 1976, and a large chunk of it was diverted into the accounts of corrupt politicians, including a former mayor arrested in 2014 for bribery.

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In spite of these challenges, the barriers created under the MOSE project successfully kept the sea at bay in 2020. It is widely perceived, however, as a stopgap measure and a similar project in New York was recently cancelled by then-President Trump because of its short-term efficacy. Even with continuous closures, UNESCO concluded in 2011 that MOSE would be able to stay dry for a few decades. However, the sea will eventually rise to a point that even continuous closures would not be able to prevent flooding. This could happen within two centuries if global warming is not curbed. If global warming continues, Venice could be submerged by 2100. Venice is actually sinking.


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