Venice experiencing worst floods in 50 years

Exceptional high tides, exacerbated by strong storms and blown by seasonal winds, have combined to drive Venetian floodwaters to their second-highest levels since records began.

By National Geographic Staff
Published 14 Nov 2019, 16:59 GMT
Photo by Marco Bertorello, AFP, Getty

The iconic Italian city of Venice is under siege from floodwaters that have risen to levels not seen in 53 years, driven by a combination of extreme high tides, strong storms, and a city that has been sinking almost since it was built.

Called aqua alta, or high water, Venice’s tides happen annually in November and December, when seasonal winds drive strong high tides up canals, through drains, and into the streets of the city. This week’s flooding was second only to the waters the inundated the city in 1966, when levels passed 6 feet.

The elevated platforms set up above the regular flooding in St. Mark’s Square to allow for foot traffic were no match for these high tides, according to news reports; authorities removed them so that they wouldn’t float away.

Last year, three-quarters of the historic city was submerged following high tides and powerful storms.

With climate change and sea levels rising globally, Venice, originally founded on soft, boggy ground, finds itself in increasingly more trouble each year. Levels in the Mediterranean Sea basin could rise as much as five feet by the end of this century, experts say, raising the risk that the subsiding city could be flooded more often than the current average of four times a year.

(Read about Venice’s ongoing struggle to survive.)

City leaders have been working on an ambitious plan to save the city since 2003. Called MOSE (MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), the project is a system of mobile gates meant to protect the city and lagoon from extreme tides. The geoengineering project is based on decades-old technology at this point, and has been bedeviled by cost overruns and charges of corruption.

The gates were supposed to be completed in 2011, but some officials say they won’t be ready for another three years.

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