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Venice Is Sinking: Struggles of the City Built on Water

Robie is an Italian artist who now lives in the US. She loves to share useful vacation tips and first-hand knowledge about Italy.

Lorenzo Quinn's Sculpture in Venice highlights the threat of climate change. The big hand installation was on view in the Grand Canal from May-November 2017.

Lorenzo Quinn's Sculpture in Venice highlights the threat of climate change. The big hand installation was on view in the Grand Canal from May-November 2017.

Environmental Problems of Venice

Despite keeping its absolutely magnificent appearance, Venice has many daily challenges to face, including some newer ones due to pollution and climate changes.

The complex ecosystem in which Venice lies, makes the city slowly deteriorate and face several problems:

  • The salty water from the sea slowly corrodes the brick walls that need continuous maintenance.
  • Unnatural waves created by boats running in the canals increase the corrosion of walls and structures, even with the speed limit being set very low, the effects of the waves is still worsening the deterioration of the city.
  • Emergency services are challenging. When there is an accident, ambulances and firefighters need to reach the location by boat and due to narrow canals, speed limits, and boat traffic, it can take a long time to respond.
  • With the high tides, water infiltrates the building foundations, damaging the wood.
  • During the XX century, with global warming melting of the glaciers, the sea level has increased by circa 1 millimeter each year. The sea level could increase by 50 centimeters by 2030.
  • In addition to the water rising, the buildings are also slowly sinking into the mud on which they are built. It has been estimated that the city sunk about 23 centimeters in one century, and up to 1.5 meters since when it was founded.
  • Like all big cities, Venice is not eluded by pollution. Particularly, the water in the canals is affected by industrial and agricultural waste deposited throughout the years. The canals are now only half the depth they were in the beginning, and the high presence of phosphorus and nitrogen stimulates algae multiplication.
  • The algae infesting the canals destroy the oxygen in the water and then decompose, causing a bad odor during the summer months’ low tides. As if the small was not enough, it also attracts mosquitoes.

Acqua Alta: High Water

In Venice Acqua Alta, which literally translates as high water, means that the sea level rises of more than 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) and covers parts of the city.

Not every high tide causes acqua alta, a series of conditions are needed to influence the sea level: the astronomical tide, the meteorological contribution, the land's natural subsidence, and the rising of the sea level. Low atmospheric pressure on the Adriatic Sea and sirocco wind are also factors triggering the high water in Venice.

These conditions occur mainly in autumn and winter, in those months, in fact, there are most of the floods. In the worst cases, the water covers 90% of Venice.
An event of acqua alta lasts three or four hours, then the water recedes and everything goes back to normal. In the areas of the city that get flooded, Venetians set up raised walkways to permit transit.

However, if you have a pair of tall rubber boots you can still go pretty much anywhere and enjoy the city even during this peculiar time.

The salty water from the sea that raises with the high tides slowly corrodes the brick walls.

The salty water from the sea that raises with the high tides slowly corrodes the brick walls.

The Sea Level Has Been Rising Over the Past 20 Years

The rise of the average sea level around Venice over the period 1994-2016 (as a result of both eustatism and subsidence, definitions below) is 5.6 millimeters per year.

There had been a period of relative stability between 1970 and the early 1990s, but now we are back to values close to those that characterized the period prior to 1970, when aggressive industrial exploitation of the underground water reserves had caused the soil to collapse.

With the current warming of the atmosphere, we have to catastrophic effect for Venice.

  1. The increase in the temperature of the waters causes a partial expansion of the oceans with a consequent rise in the sea levels.
  2. The melting of the continental ice sheets (Greenland and Antarctica above all) resulting in of new liquid masses contributing to the sea level rise.

Venice Is Sinking 1.5 mm Per Year

The subsidence component of the historic center of Venice in the period 1994-2016 is equal to -1.9 millimeters per year, in clear increase compared to the stability of the previous twenty years.

The recent increase in the subsidence speed of Venetian soil is supported by the latest up-to-date analyses of satellite data (GPS) which indicate a loss of altitude in the period 2010 - 2015 with a speed approaching -1.5 millimeters per year.

Troubling Predictions for the Sea Level

A study, published in Quaternary International in 2017 and reported in The Independent, predicted that if global warming isn't curbed in the coming decades, all of Venice will be completely underwater by 2100, as the Mediterranean Sea is expected to rise by up to 55 inches in that time.

Climate Change Effects Start Being Clear

In November 2019 Venice experienced the highest water levels in the region in more than 50 years.

The waters in Venice peaked at 1.87m (6ft), according to the tide monitoring center. Only once since official records began in 1923 has the tide been higher, reaching 1.94m in 1966.

This will leave "a permanent mark", Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro tweeted.

"Now the government must listen," he added. "These are the effects of climate change... the costs will be high."

St Mark's Basilica was flooded for the sixth time in 1,200 years suffering "grave damage," according to Mr. Brugnaro.

How Venice Was Built on Water and Mud

In Venice, to raise any building, from the smallest house, to the Cathedrals and tall bell towers, the first phase of the contraction has always been to create a dry area for the foundations.

Then, they had to deal with the ever-present factors of salt water lapping the walls, foundations built on muddy sand, and long-term salt corrosion.

In the old days, they framed the area with two lines of wooden beams, distant about 30 inches from one line to the other, and filled the gap with mud. This would create a wall all around the lot, allowing the builders to drain the water inside the area.

Once dry, they planted tree trunks one next to the other, deep enough to reach solid ground. Once they leveled the tree heads, they would fill any gaps between the tree trunks with stones, rocks, broken tiles, and other materials mixed with cement.

Over the leveled trees they would put planks of larch and elm wood. This would increase even more the resistance of the trunks planted in the mud and cemented, to the point that they would keep in great condition for centuries.

Standing on Upside-Down Trees

Founded around the year 450 AD by mainland populations escaping from the barbarian invasions of the Huns led by Attila, Venice is built on over 100,000 palafittes driven into the mud to lay a solid basis for the magnificent buildings.

Venice has been built on the Venetian lagoon, over a forest of upside-down trees.

With the absence of oxygen, the upside-down trees have become as hard as a rock. However, the mysterious uncertainty of this daring work has fed for centuries rumors of the city’s demise, but Venice survives intact through the centuries.

 In Venice, the tree trunks planted into the Lagoon form a foundation of palafittes for brick buildings.

In Venice, the tree trunks planted into the Lagoon form a foundation of palafittes for brick buildings.

What Are the Palafittes?

In archaeology, palafittes are prehistoric huts built over a body of water and supported by wood beams driven into the muddy ground.

This kind of dwelling built on a wooden platform over water is still used in some regions of South-East Asia and Equatorial Africa.

In Venice, the tree trunks planted into the Lagoon form a foundation of palafittes for brick buildings.

Is Venice One Island?

The magnificent Venice, which seen from a plane looks like a single fish-shaped island, is actually made of 118 islands.

The Islands are separated by about 150 canals and connected by more than 400 bridges.

The main canal is the Canal Grande, which cuts through Venice as a big backward S, and is crossed by only three bridges (ponti): the Ponte di Rialto, the Ponte dell'Accademia, and the Ponte degli Scalzi.

Satellite map of Venice

Satellite map of Venice

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Robie Benve


mecheshier on June 15, 2012:

You are most welcome. I look forward to reading more of your Hubs.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 15, 2012:

Thanks a lot mecheshier, I really appreciate your feedback. :)

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 15, 2012:

Marcy, I hear you, it's happening to me too: the more I write about Italy, the more I look in my bank account for vacation funds.

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. :)

mecheshier on June 15, 2012:

Great Hub! I love history, especially architecture. The pics and story are amazing. Voted up for awesome.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on June 15, 2012:

I've always wanted to know more about how this amazing city was built. And why. This is a beautiful and educational hub - you're making me want to visit this place! But then, all your hubs about your life in Europe have entranced me!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 15, 2012:

I'm very happy you found the read interesting wayseeker. Best of luck to you for earning on HP your Italian vacation. How cool would that be? :)

Thanks a lot. :)

wayseeker from Colorado on June 14, 2012:

What a fascinating read, Robie. My wife and I were just talking to our kids about Venice and wondering about many of the questions you answered here. Built on trees thrust into the ground in the fifth century? Now that's interesting stuff. Once again you have me dreaming of a European vacation. Maybe I'll be able to find it through Hubpages someday!

Voted up and very interesting! I'll have to make a new place to pin this one, too.