The Canals Are Clear Thanks to the Coronavirus, But Venice’s Existential Threat Is Climate Change

Flooding in November has left experts wondering whether the massive retractable gates the city is constructing will ever keep all of the water out.

Living these days inside their homes to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Venetians have discovered a silver lining in an empty city suddenly free of polluting tourist boats. The water in the legendary canals is clear, unlike anything they've seen in decades.

Lidia Feruoch, president of the Venice branch of Italy's largest environmental group, Italia Nostra, rejoiced at watching "cormorants dive into the canals to catch fish because the water in the lagoon has become transparent again," she said in a recent interview. She hopes the end of the pandemic will free Venice from a "tourism monoculture" that brings 27 million visitors a year to this city of 50,000.

Still, Feruoch and Don Roberto Donadoni, parish priest of the Basilica of San Marco, remain mindful of the city's other existential threat, climate change, a preview of which they saw in the dark and churning waters of November, when extreme flooding from heavy rains and high tides swamped Venice and reached a level a few scant centimeters below that of the legendary 1966 flood.

If the world can't radically reduce its carbon footprint, climate models show that sea-level rise is most likely to inundate Venice by 2100. Either radical steps to slow global warming must be taken by world leaders, or some special fix for Venice needs to be devised and implemented. To date, no one knows what that would be.

The current solution, a vast, 6 billion euro network of flap gates designed to wall Venice off from the roiling water and protect the city from heavy rains, high tides and flooding, is far more problematic than social distancing during the pandemic.

Most environmental scientists and engineering experts believe the Electromechanical Experimental Module, or MOSE, is probably obsolete already, despite being years away from completion, assuming the complex underwater technology ever works. It was designed 20 years ago when the projections for sea level rise throughout the century were not nearly as dire as they are now. They are only expected to grow as ice melts in Greenland faster than anticipated.

Their fears echo those of environmentalists in New York about a giant system of retractable seagates that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying as a way to protect Manhattan from another storm surge like Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Both the Italian and American projects raise fundamental questions about the ability to hold back the rising tides in coastal cities worldwide.

Piero Ruol, a professor of Maritime Construction at the University of Padua, said even best-case scenarios for carbon reduction would result in enough sea-level rise to require that the MOSE stay shut over six months a year, which would essentially kill the Venice lagoon environmentally.

"Therefore, the MOSE can not be considered a solution that 'lasts forever' for protecting Venice from flooding," he said, "and it is time to think of new solutions for solving this delicate conundrum, in the face of climate change."

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