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Sinking City(9-23-05)

Sinking City(9-23-05)

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Published by: venice20 on Jun 01, 2008
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With a few expert motions of his oar, Fabio Carrera sends the long batèla boat gliding around a corner in this maze of canals. Suddenly, a dim patch of stars is theonly light and the gentle swish of water theonly sound. The experience evokes acenturies-old past, when Venicewas one of the most powerfulcity-states in the Western world.But times have changed. Oneclue is the outboard motors pro-truding from beneath the tarps of moored boats. Another comes inthe approach to the tunnel beneath Santo Stefano Church.Although it is low tide, Car-rera has to stoop to clear themoist stone ceiling. “At hightide, this passage is completelyinaccessible,” says Carrera, anurban information scientist and native Venetian who now divideshis time between Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massa-chusetts and his watery home-town. Elsewhere in the city, the
acqua alta
overflows the streets,fills the ground floors of build-ings, and nibbles away at bricksand plaster. New Orleans isn’t the onlycoastal city threatened by en-croaching waters. Little by littleeach year, Venice is being swal-lowed by the sea. Although this has been a problem since the Middle Ages, an accel-erating rise in sea levels linked to globalwarming has turned the sporadic floodingfrom a nuisance into a looming catastro- phe. Crisis already hit once, in 1966, whenmost of the city’s streets were submerged under a meter of water. After 3 decades of debate, construction has now begun on aseries of enormous tidal gates to defend the city. The $5 billion plan is controver-sial, with some critics arguing for differ-ent protective measures and others pre-dicting that the coming decades of sea-level rise will render the gates obsolete(see sidebar, p. 1979).But there’s good news as well. The“Venice problem” has made the city a hotspot for scientific research, and there’s noshortage of questions to tackle. “Every timewe focus on one aspect of the practical problem, we discover another gap in our knowledge,” says Pierpaolo Campostrini,an electrical engineer who directsCORILA, the organization that orchestratesVenice’s scientific activities. Venice is pro-viding other coastal cities with insights onwhat global climate change looks like at thelocal level. The city and its lagoon have also become a model system for studying how physical, biological, and urban processesinteract in a marine setting.If Italy’s Ministry of Education, Univer-sities, and Research has its way, Venicewill soon receive 1.5%—$60 million—of the $5 billion allocated for the tidal gates.City officials hope that the five-fold increase in national fundingfor basic science institutionswill attract young people bycreating more academic and high-tech jobs in a city whose population is rapidly shrinking.But whether science can revital-ize the city or save it from theencroaching sea remains anopen question.
At the battlefront of climatechange
Zipping across the chalkygreen water in a motorboat,Campostrini points out a16th century stone fortress withwindows half-submerged. “It’snot enough to estimate sea levelas a global average,” he says.Determining a particular city’srisk—and what to do about it— requires an understanding of howclimate change plays out locally.Even so, Venice is a “microcosmof the larger changes” taking place, says Trevor Davies, anatmospheric scientist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K.For instance, Venice’s record of sea-levelchange is now the most comprehensive inthe world. Modern records of watermarks go back to the late 19th century, and researchersare finding ways to push the data farther  back in time. A Venetian tradition of paint-ing scenes with the help of 
camera obscura
 projections, the pinhole predecessor to pho-tography, has left researchers with accu-rately scaled images of the green algae lines
   C   R   E   D   I   T   S    (   T   O   P   T   O    B   O   T   T   O   M    )  :   A   S   S   O   C   I   A   T   E   D   P   R   E   S   S  ;   N   A   S   A   /   C   O   R   I   L   A    (   S   U   P   E   R   I   M   P   O   S   E   D   G   R   I   D  :   G   E   O   R   G   U   M   G   I   E   S   S   E   R    )
23 SEPTEMBER 2005VOL 309SCIENCEwww.sciencemag.org
News Focus
Complex interactions.
A computer model,overlaid on a satellite image,divides the Venice Lagoon into thousands of interacting triangles to enablestudy of its processes,such as water flow and sediment transport.
Like New Orleans,Venice is slowly subsiding.
Several decades and$10 billion of research have not settled the debate over 
what to do aboutthe “Venice problem,”but studies of the city’s famed lagoon are pro-viding insights for other coastal cities on pollution and climate change
A Sinking CityYields Some Secrets
Like New Orleans,Venice is slowly subsiding.
Several decades and$10 billion of research have not settled the debate over 
what to do aboutthe “Venice problem,”but studies of the city’s famed lagoon are pro-viding insights for other coastal cities on pollution and climate change
A Sinking CityYields Some Secrets
Published by AAAS
on walls that mark the average high-water level. A team led by Dario Camuffo, a cli-matologist at the University of Padua, Italy,has used them to extend sea-level records back another 300 years. Archaeologists aregoing back to the Middle Ages by estimatingwater levels based on the buried remains of former walls and bridges. And geologists areestimating the local sea level 2000 years ago by dating the remains of saltmarsh plants that once poked above the water.To fit these data into the global picture, researchers must alsoaccount for Venice’s steady sink-ing due to a combination of mov-ing continental plates and com- pressing sediments. The effect of a “little Ice Age” that hit Europe inthe Middle Ages appears as aspike in sea levels even higher than today, whereas the levels atthe time of the Roman Empirewere about 1.5 meters lower. Themost troubling trend, says geo- physicist Alberto Tomasin of theUniversity of Venice, is that sea levels haverisen rapidly over the past 50 years.Rising sea level isn’t the only way cli-mate change is affecting the city. Venice is a perfect natural lab for studying these effects,says Davies, because changes in weather  patterns are “amplified” as changes in thefrequency and severity of flooding events.Davies and Isabel Trigo, a climate scientistat the University of Lisbon, Portugal, have been teasing apart the different factors thatcause the flooding.The first task has been a postmortem of the 1966 disaster. Even without globalwarming, Venice would be prone to flooding, both because it was built only a couple of meters above the water and because of thecity’s location at the end of the narrowAdriatic Sea. The mountains to the north cre-ate low-pressure systems that suck the water level higher up around the lagoon, and wind tends to blow in from the sea, piling the water higher. And because of the shape of theAdriatic, sometimes swells generated bystorms in the Mediterranean fall in phasewith the tides, doubling the load of water thatrushes into Venice’s lagoon. These factors allconspired in 1966, causing the second tide of the day to push into the lagoon before thefirst could drain out, swamping the city.With these mechanisms mapped out,Davies and Trigo are finding that climatechange can also have a protective effect at thelocal level, at least in the short term. Venicewould be in much deeper trouble by now, saysDavies, were it not for a northward drift of theAtlantic storm track over the past 40 years, atrend linked to global warming. As a knock-oneffect, storms in the Mediterranean have become less severe, likely saving the city frommore 1966-style catastrophes. What happensif climate change nudges the Atlantic circula-tion farther off track is hard to predict. Bystudying Venice, says Davies, “you can start todraw out these subtle effects.”
Deep knowledge of a shallow lagoon
In the past 3 decades, Rome has spent morethan $10 billion studying and coping withthe “Venice problem.” In comparison,Italy’s national research foundationreceives about $1 billion per year. “By themid-1990s, people began saying that theVenice funding was a
,” a giant cakefree for the taking, recalls Philippe Pypaert,an environmental scientist at the United  Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cul-tural Organization’s European science bureau in Venice. In 2000, the newly estab-lished CORILA began reining in the proj-ects by controlling the flow of funds and organizing projects under a few broad goals. “Things are under much better con-trol now,” says Pypaert.Still, Campostrini says that climate changeand flooding aren’t Venice’s only problems.The city’s art and architectural treasuresrequire protection and restoration, and thereare environmental threats to the surroundinglagoon, which is a bustling seaport and one of Europe’s largest protected wetlands.To help understand the troubles beset-ting the lagoon, scientists of every stripe are building a model that can not only helpthem manage the fragile environment butalso shed light on the physical and biologi-cal aspects of a wetland. “This is our ulti-
www.sciencemag.orgSCIENCEVOL 30923 SEPTEMBER 2005
     C     R     E     D     I     T    :     M     O     S     E
Holding Back the Sea
Understanding climate impacts is useful.But the goal is to protect Venice.Dams would dothe trick,says Campostrini,but the city would lose its income as a port and the lagoonwould die without the daily tides.Injecting water into the underground aquifer that wasnearly drained 40 years ago would lift the city,but uneven rising could also destroy it.The compromise solution,called MOSE,is a series of 78 hollow,300-ton steel gates.The gates will sit flat underwater at the lagoon’s three inlets.But in anticipation of a flood,air will be pumped into the structures tomake them stand upright and block tides upto a meter higher than those of 1966.Dredg-ing has begun for the massive concrete foun-dations,but they won’t be operationalbefore 2011.The two questions hanging over MOSE arehow often they will be used and how high sealevels will rise.By official estimates,the gateswill be needed only two or three times a year.But critics say it could be as often as 50,enough to make the lagoon a sewage-contaminated swamp.And if the worst-casescenario of a 1-meter sea-level rise by 2100comes true,the gates could be useless.Outsidersopinions are as mixed as thoseof Venetians.“Something like the MOSE gatesare needed because controlling tidal surges isthe only solution,”says Caroline Fletcher,acoastal scientist at the University of Cam-bridge,U.K.But building gates is not enough,according to John Day,an ecologist atLouisiana State University in Baton Rouge who,until 2 years ago,led a long-term study of the Venice lagoon.Day says his study,one of many supported by national funds devoted toVenice,revealed that returning the flow of diverted rivers back into the lagoon would notonly deposit sediments to compensate for subsidence but also would support lush wetlandvegetation that would act as a buffer to slow the surges.With this natural defense,says Day,the gates would not be needed nearly as often.“Venice’s situation is unique,as is NewOrleans’s,”he says,“but they share the long-term problem of subsidence and wetland loss.”Day contends that the consortium of industrial partners behind the MOSE project“[doesn’t] want to hear about”natural versus engineered solutions.Meanwhile,some Venetians argue that the entire debate has fallen far from the mark.“The take-home lesson from all this,”says Fabio Carrera,an urban information scientistwho divides his time between Venice and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts,“is that the cheapest solution is to stop global warming,but no one seems to be talkingabout that.”
From below.
The MOSE gates will rest under-water until floods are predicted and air isforced into their interiors.
Published by AAAS

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