A powerful storm and high tides sent the Adriatic Sea surging into Venice this week, yielding the city’s fourth-highest water level on record. The lagoon rose more than five feet above sea level and three-quarters of the city flooded; police even had to briefly close the Piazza San Marco, the iconic, pigeon-flocked central square. Saint Mark’s Basilica took on nearly three feet of water, inundating its mosaic floor for just the fifth time since the church was consecrated 10 centuries ago. “The basilica has aged 20 years in just one day, and perhaps I am being overly optimistic about that,” Carlo Tesserin, the church’s chief administrator, told the Italian media. When salt water from the lagoon creeps into the buildings bricks, it weakens the lower stretches of the church’s 91,000 square feet of tiny tiles, church officials said.
With its famous network of canals, Venice is sometimes invoked as a one-word warning for cities in the age of climate change—a future to avoid. But seasonal floods known as acqua alta have been a regular feature of the city’s off-seasons for decades, and flooding has been common since its days as a powerful city-state. The flooding didn’t even dissuade many tourists, who donned brightly colored plastic booties to shuffle through knee-deep water on sidewalks as merchants threw up barricades to keep their shops dry. The images we saw this week are images we’ve seen from other fall and winter floods—raised wooden boards pretending to be sidewalks, flat-bottomed boats skimming across piazzas, waiters in tall galoshes. They always read to me as evidence of some kind of slightly performative, plucky Venetian hospitality. Lo spettacolo deve continuare.
But there’s no doubt things are getting worse, thanks to rising sea levels and the city’s slow subsidence into its surrounding lagoon. Between 1872 (when record-keeping began) and 1950, the city only experienced one flooding event that would today qualify as “severe” (over 55 inches above sea level). The other seven “severe” events have occurred in the last decade.
Normally, I’m heartened by Venetians’ stoicism. This week, though, with storms like Harvey and Florence in the back of my mind and the IPCC’s most recent climate change report nearer to the front, I had a different reaction. Watching runners in the Venice marathon splash through a flooded quay on Sunday, as the lagoon began its rise, I felt I was watching a climate change dream sequence—a rather obvious metaphor in which scenes from daily life were enacted on a stage filling with water… climate change as a child would understand it. The effect was even more pronounced in a viral video of a flooded pizzeria, where chefs, waiters, and diners cooked, delivered, and consumed pizzas in ankle-deep seawater.
It’s hard not to admire the stubborn commitment to routine. But it’s impossible not to see something of ourselves in the pizzeria video, blindly going about business as usual as the seas swirl around us. We’ll all get a Nero moment in this play, eating pizza while Venice sinks.
The city has yet to surpass its all-time high-water mark, set during a nasty gale in November 1966, which ultimately prompted the construction of one of the country’s most ambitious civil engineering projects, MOSE, meant to protect the lagoon from the Adriatic. The acronym stands for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, but it’s also the Italian word for Moses, the prophet who parted the Red Sea with a wave of his hands. The Italians have not found it so easy. The $6-billion-dollar system of mobile gates was supposed to be operational by this year precisely to protect Venice from surges like the one that arrived this week. But after billions in cost overruns and an epic corruption scandal, it has yet to open.
As Jeff Goodell observes in his climate change book The Water Will Come, MOSE—which spans more than 50 years from precipitating event to operation—may be yet another megaproject planned for a world that no longer exists. Once running, the project is supposed to close less than a dozen times a year, for just a few hours at the time, an important constraint for both the health of the lagoon and the wear and tear of the mechanical system. But throw in 1.5 feet of sea level rise, and the barrier might have to close once a day. A little more sea level rise and it might have to closed more than it’s open. Perhaps the city should have just built a wall.