Venice during Aqua Alta. Taken 2010.
©Roberto Trombetta - flickr.com

Regarded as a cultural hub worldwide, Venice evokes a gorgeous cityscape, rich symphonies, and of course the romance inherent in a lazy gondola ride down the canals. It is the birthplace of cultural giants, such as Antonio Vivaldi, and plays host to over 20 million visitors annually, with more day-trippers than both overnight visitors and native Venetians combined.

Venice sprawls across 118 small islands, connected together by canals and bridges, which paints the alluring illusion that the city floats upon the Venetian Lagoon. Founded in the 5th century, Venice quickly rose as a maritime power due to its defensive advantage. Most buildings throughout the city are built upon Istrian limestone plates, resting atop closely spaced wooden piles.

Ever since the Carnival of Venice was revived in 1980, the city's claim to fame has been its propensity for all things cultural: theatre, cinema, music, and art. However, even before this, Venice enjoyed a bustling tourism trade, being considered an essential stop along the Grand Tour. Venice was, and remains, the "locus of decadent Italiante allure."

One of Venice's great nemeses is subsidence—the natural dissolution of the marshy islands that Venice was built upon. However, what should have been a slow, but steady descent was expedited by industry in the 20th century. By extracting groundwater from wells, the industrial complex at Marghera played a direct role in Venice's spiking subsidence. Venice's natural rate of 0.4mm subsidence a year in 1930, leapt to 12mm a year by the beginning of 1970.

While that danger has largely been curbed by precautionary measures put into place in 1970, Venice continues to sink ever closer to the waves she rests on. Recent analysis shows that Venice continues to subside at a rate of 1-2mm per annum, meaning that we've only delayed the inevitable.

WHY IS IT AT RISK?

Venice's fairy-tale charm is both its greatest appeal and its deadliest drawback—the city that "floats" atop the lagoon is actually sinking. Steady climate change coupled with Venice's slow submergence has resulted in increased flooding throughout the city.

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As if subsistence were not enough, Venice also has to contend with the whims of Mother Nature. Rising sea levels, a direct result of global climate change, continue to threaten Venice's sanctity. The city is increasingly beset by "acqua alta," or extreme high tides, during which the water levels rise over 90mm higher than usual. Severe acqua alta events will even cover almost all of the city, necessitating evacuation of homes and businesses throughout Venice.

Flooding in Venice was once a relatively rare occurrence, but as time marches on it has become increasingly common. For example, at the turn of the 21st century, the iconic St. Mark's Square might flood once per year. Today, it floods as many as 200 times annually.

St Mark’s Square during Aqua Alta. Taken 2011.
St Mark’s Square during Aqua Alta. Taken 2011. ©Roberto Trombetta - flickr.com
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But Venice isn't going down without a fight. In 2003, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi began proposed the MOSE project (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico)—an ambitious proposal to buoy Venetian spirits and literally turn back the tide.

The proposed solution depends on 78 hollow pontoons affixed to the ocean floor across the lagoon's three entrances. When tides over 110 cm are predicted, the pontoons will inflate and block off incoming water from the Adriatic Sea.

The £5.4 billion MOSE project has thus far been delayed, but is expected to be operational in 2016. Hopefully this last ditch effort will spare Venice for the enjoyment of future generations.

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SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

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COMMENT: EMMA-LOUISE BASSETT

Venice in Peril Fund

“In order to help Venice, tourists can support conservation projects undertaken by organisations like Venice in Peril Fund, one of 24 international committees working to safeguard the city. Tourists can also be considerate and intelligent in the way they visit the city, by trying to understand its history and its lagoon environment beyond the obvious major sites. By doing this, tourists will find it possible to escape the crowds.”

The Venice City Council produces an online newsletter called Detourism. The Detourism campaign promotes slow and sustainable tourism, encouraging travellers to go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes. So ditch the itinerary and become a detourist, find out what travel guides never tell, and discover an unexpected Venice.

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