April 23, 2019 Insights

Protecting Venice’s Lagoon from Acqua Altissima

Erin Flannery Keith

Venice’s piazzas seem always ready for acqua alta––the routine flooding phenomenon that occurs at during particularly high tides. Municipal workers stack platforms around the city and quickly arrange them into elevated sidewalks when the Venetian lagoon’s waters lap over low banks and seep up through paving stones. Stepping into Saint Mark’s Basilica, a lofty 40 centimeters above sea level, one smells and sees that water has been creeping into the marble and mosaics for centuries. The flooding is becoming more serious and frequent––less an occasional annoyance and more an existential threat to Venice’s structures and natural environment. On October 31 and November 1, 2018, a storm surge deluged the city in 61 inches of water. Jason Horowitz, In Venice Floods, Tourists Frolic as Locals Fear for Treasures, N.Y. Times, Nov. 2, 2018, at A7. Venice, like many other coastal cities, urgently needs to combat climate-change exacerbated sea level rise and storm surges and protect its ecosystems, cultural heritage, and residents. An enormous system of mobile underwater floodgates called the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, or Experimental Electromechanical Module (MOSE), was debated for decades and construction began in 2003. MOSE would comprise three massive gates that would mechanically rise at three barrier island entrances to Venice’s lagoon during flood events. Due to a labyrinthine succession of governmental entities with primary jurisdiction, an unwieldy number of other required approvals, and official corruption, the MOSE project is years behind schedule. The project recently missed its latest projected launch date of December 2018 and, if functioning, could have lessened the fall 2018 catastrophic acqua altissima (very high water). As a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site (WHS), consider Venice as cultural charismatic megafauna: perhaps other countries and cities can learn from the MOSE experience in planning for infrastructure projects to protect sites important to global heritage from the effects of climate change.

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