On the night of Nov. 12, 2019, as epic floodwaters were rising in Venice, Italy, members of the Veneto regional council gathered in their chambers on Venice’s Grand Canal and, incredibly enough, voted to reject measures to battle climate change. Within two minutes, according to council member Andrea Zanoni, water started pouring in, flooding the chambers with several feet of murky lagoon water.
Coincidence? Maybe. But it almost makes you believe there is a god, and she is laughing hysterically at how foolish humans can be in the face of the climate crisis.
What happened in Venice, however, is no joke. High winds in the Adriatic Sea drove six feet of water into the city, causing the worst flooding the city has seen in more than 50 years. Tourists took selfies in San Mark’s Basilica in waist-deep water (one man swam across St. Mark’s Square – likely the first, but surely not the last, person ever to do that). Eighty-five percent of the city flooded; at least two deaths were reported. The floodwaters did incalculable damage to the foundations and structural integrity of the 1,000-year-old city’s most iconic buildings, including St. Mark’s Basilica. “These are the effects of climate change,” Venice mayor Luigi Burganaro said as he waded through the flooded city.
But the tragedy of Venice is about more than climate change and the power of rising seas. It’s about how bad engineering, combined with greed and incompetence, can make the climate crisis we are facing so much worse.
Venetians, of course, have been dealing with flooding for centuries. The city, which is located in a shallow lagoon at the edge of the Adriatic, was protected from storms by marshy barrier islands called “barene.” As far back as the 12th century, Venetians have been managing the tidal flows into and out of the lagoon by blocking rivers and building up the barrier islands to protect the city. When they built new buildings, they often built them on top of the pillars and foundations of older buildings, which had the effect of gradually raising the city.
But things started changing in the 1960s, with the excavation of the Canale dei Petroli, a channel that was dredged to allow oil tankers to reach Porto Marghera, a deep-water port on the mainland near Venice. The shipping channels changed the tidal dynamics of the lagoon, allowing storm surges from the Adriatic to penetrate deeper and faster into the city. They also hastened erosion of the lagoon, which has widened the inlet into the sea, further increasing the risk of tidal surges. In recent years, the channels have been further deepened and expanded to accommodate cruise ships, which have transformed the romantic city of Titian and Giorgione into a kitsch-filled tourist trap.
And like many coastal cities, the pumping of groundwater for drinking water and industrial use caused the city to sink in recent decades, which did not help. When I visited Venice to do some reporting for my book The Water Will Come, about sea-level rise, I spoke with Pierpaolo Campostrini, an expert in the restoration and preservation of Venice, who told me the groundwater pumping had stopped and sinking was no longer a problem.
In the past, Campostrini told me, Venice had no trouble dealing with rising seas. “We just kept building the city higher. The palazzo we are sitting in today was built in the 15th century, but there’s a 13th-century palazzo beneath this. And beneath that, who knows? They were not sentimental about the past. They did not worry about preserving old buildings. They just built new ones on top of the old ones. And the city kept rising. But of course we can’t do that anymore. Now, there are cultural constraints. We don’t want to lose the beautiful Renaissance architecture we have here. Knocking it down and building on top of it is not an option. We have to find another way to save it.”
In 2003, a consortium of engineering and construction firms was formed to build a series of barriers at the entrance to the lagoon to protect the city. MOSE, as it is called (the acronym, which comes from MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, is deliberately meant to invoke Moses, the Biblical parter of the sea) is a highly-engineered series of barriers designed to rest at the bottom of the lagoon. When a storm surge comes in, the barriers are supposed to inflate with air and rise up and create a temporary wall to protect the city.
MOSE was intended to be a technological marvel, an ambitious engineering project that would showcase the ability of forward-thinking engineers and politicians to save one of the gems of human civilization. At one conference I attended in Venice a few years ago, Pier Vellinga, a climatologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, called MOSE “a Ferrari on the sea floor.”
It wasn’t clear whether he meant that as a compliment.
Engineering-wise, MOSE has been a debacle. Underwater casings have eroded from corrosion, and there has been an infestation of mussels in the hinges. In tests, the bulkheads don’t rise out of the water as they are supposed to. Underwater drone images show that the floodgates are already corroded. Italian journalist Roberto Giovanni calls MOSE’s engineering flaws “an anthology of horrors.”
The project has also been plagued by corruption and cost overruns. In 2014, 35 politicians, entrepreneurs, and civil servants were arrested on various corruption and bribery-related charges, including the former regional president Giancarlo Galan. Not surprisingly, the cost of the barrier system ballooned from $1.7 billion to more than $6 billion. It was scheduled to be completed in 2011. Now, due to all the design and engineering problems, it won’t be operational until at least 2022.
But the biggest problem with MOSE is that the barriers were planned for a world that no longer exists. For one thing, even as sea levels rise, the locks will have to be closed more and more frequently. And that is a problem, because the lagoon needs continuous exchange with the sea, otherwise it degenerates to a sewer (most septic systems in Venice dump right into the lagoon). Worse, the barrier was only engineered to protect the city from about two feet of sea level rise, which some scientists believe could happen as early as 2050. After that, the $6 billion dollar Ferrari on the sea floor will be useless. If it ever works at all, that is.
Venice’s future is not pretty. After 2019’s floods, there will likely be renewed efforts to engineer temporary fixes, such as water-tight barriers to keep water from rising up beneath some of the city’s architectural gems. There are plans to elevate Piazza San Marco a few feet. But in the long run, the only way to save Venice may be to permanently wall it off from the lagoon. That will kill life in the lagoon and turn the city into a Disneyland-like theme park entirely cut off from nature. It’s a sad fate for a glorious and historic place like Venice, but that’s what we’re doing to our world.