Is Venice Sinking?
'The ground Venice was built on has been dissolving'
Nicola Godsell | 6 November 2015

On a recent trip to Italy I was able to enjoy the maze of picturesque streets that is Venice. Everywhere you turn there is something interesting to see: may that be monuments, restaurants or an array of Venice’s famous masquerade shops. Visits to the San Marco square, the Grand Canal and the Island of Burano were definite highlights of our trip. With very traditional architecture and no concrete in sight, the beautiful city comprises of a mix of ornate churches and terraced houses, flush against the canals.

Of course where Venice's individuality thrives, is in its waterways, littered with gondolas, vaparettos and water taxis. It makes a pleasant replacement for the unpleasant volume of traffic on a British road. (Although the fact that Venice is a group of small islands in the Adriatic Sea does mean you have to endure a slight fishy odour!)   

Despite the copious window boxes, I did notice the distinct lack of greenery at ground level, and from flicking quickly through a guide book, I found the idea that Venice is in fact, sinking. Although to my surprise the reasoning of Venice’s subsidence is a major and familiar issue to the locals. Not only is there the obvious sea level rise worldwide but actually the city was also built on marshland during the Roman Empire. The ground Venice was built on has been dissolving, causing the foundations of the city to crumble beneath its perfectly presented ground level. Over the past 1,000 years it has sunk 7 centimetres each century, but in the past hundred years, research has shown Venice to be 24 centimetres lower. During the 1950s, mainland industries began extracting fresh water from nearby artesian wells, not understanding that much of this fresh water was actually supporting the city. Despite stopping the practice when the water began to be extracted on a large scale, Venice is still sinking at an alarming rate with only a few techniques to assist the city's survival. Several times a year, usually during the winter seasons, Venice floods. This high water or ”acqua alta” is defined as the water level being 90cm above the normal tide. Already, the frequency of acqua alta has increased from fewer than 10 times a year to more than 60 times a year in the last century. It is said that the cause is a very high tide (usually during a full or new moon), low atmospheric pressure or a scirocco wind forcing the water up into the Venetian Lagoon. Flooding occurs when these factors fall into play in conjunction with the reasons of the sinking of the city: the rising sea level; geological factors and compression of the land beneath the city's millions of wooden pilings.   

Despite these slightly terrifying facts, locals and tourists alike are unphased by the hotspot flooding. Vendors and restaurateurs assess the damage whilst tourists brave the water and venture out in wellies to see the sights. In 2011 San Marco Square was over 1.3 metres covered in seawater, people made the most of this event by swimming in one of the most iconic scenes in Italy. In 1900, water at acqua alta only covered St Mark's Square a maximum of seven times a year. Now such flooding occurs 40 times a year, raising worries that the city is sinking. 

With all these worries would you not expect someone to be solving the issue? A group of engineers and geologists at the University of Padua led by Professor Giuseppe Gambolati, who has studied the soil under the waterlogged city for more than 30 years, plan to pump up the city. The £68.4 million project would involve digging 12 holes around Venice and pumping water through them, 2,298ft under the ground. The water will expand the layer of sand underneath, which when it moves against a higher level of waterproof clay, would push up the whole city. This is expected to raise the ground by a foot over the next 19 years, hopefully counteracting the past 300 years of Venice's subsidence. Other strategies are being blueprinted.   

Hopefully a project will be put in place to save Venice from submerging under the sea, but who knows how long the floating city has left. I for one will sorely miss all that it has to offer; it truly is an unmissable destination. A city that is not only suited to a couple on a romantic getaway, but anyone interested in exploring another culture. Definitely one for the Bucket List!

Original image by Olivia Iacaponi

James Routledge 2016