An un precedented Acqua Alta arrived in Venice two weeks ago. Despite water damage, the city and its residents are incredibly resilient and are already back on their feet. These high tides are normal for this season, but this time was a combination of factors that made it the second highest Acqua Alta on record.

What happened when and why?

The days before an acqua alta, we (residents and persons staying in the city) are warned of the fact via apps and weather forecasts. Acqua Alta literally translates to mean high water and is considered to be anything above 120 cm. At this point about 15% of Venice would be ‘under water’. On the actual day that the water is expected old World War Two sirens sound out, signaling with their tones how many cm’s we are to expect. It is an eery but effective method, most of the time. 

The winter period is potholed with acqua atlas, and it always has been but the worry now is the massive increase in the frequency. It happens during this period because of the combination of increased rain levels and strong winds. When these two occur at the time of the full moon it results typically in an Acqua Alta. However, here below we will tell you how this time was different, what happened, why and what can be done to help. 

(Read here our past article on the Acqua Alta of last year to see how it was different.)

On November 13th and 17th of 2019

A level of water arrived that has not been seen in the city since 1966, where it reached 194cm. The prediction was initially 140cm, which then changed around 21.00 to 155-160cm and finally was announced to be expected at 190cm just before 23.00. The speed at which the water rose was one of the most damaging factors for most of the ground floor locations. Barriers were ready but only too quickly became useless. And despite peoples best efforts eventually the strength of the water and the wind left no other choice but to wait as the tide flowed in. Forcing its way through windows and doors of houses, engulfing campos and even tearing down trees and some brick walls.

There have been many people pointing at the governance of the city, because it is clear that this massive issue has been known about for years. And indeed around 12 years ago the beginnings of MOSE project, (born as a project to protect the city and lagoon from exactly this type of disaster) was started. An enormous amount of public funding went into the project only to have one of the largest corruption scandals ever to happen in Italy be unearthed shortly after. This has left the city not only unprotected but it has also stolen precious time which could have been used for another project. This is one of the issues being highlighted, the other is on a global scale, as the impacts of Global Warming are manifesting all over the country and world.

Four main factors

Giovanni Leone , an Architect in Venice since 1981, states there are 4 reasons, which together, create the extreme high waters. 

  1. Full moon high in the sky
  2. Speed ​​of the water (due to the depth of the lagoon openings and the canals)
  3. Direction of the wind (Scirocco)
  4. Speed ​​of the wind (100kmh).

Of this, the last two factors can be considered as results of changes that are occurring in the climate.

The speed at which the water came can arguable be said to be accentuated by human intervention in the canals and lagoon openings. These have deepened over years to allow greater ship traffic in particular cruise ships where they should not otherwise be. But results in a mass of water building speed in these unnatural depths. Scirocco is a type of wind that comes from the south and pushes the sea water into the lagoon and over the city.   

In 1996 when this last occurred, arriving at 194cm as previously stated there were far more residents and far more people living on the ground floor. Since then the number residents has decreased to a third of the size and fewer people live on the ground floor. 

What can be done? 

Venice is already started to get back on its feet, but your help is still greatly appreciated. Seeing as most of us have not studied this problem at length, the best thing we can do whilst trying to inform ourselves, is to financially support those inner networks who have been working for many years for the interests of venice and know the problems well. The two that we can recommend are listed here below but they are by no means exclusive. 

WE ARE HERE VENICE , a non profit that focusses particular on the lagoon health and fighting against the illegalities of the Large Cruise ships, (for the who the cannals have been deepened)

And secondly, VENETIAN HERITAGE , who focus and have done for many years on protecting and restoring Venetian culture and art. They are well informed and very active in protecting much of the damaged art, churches and heritage of Venice that has  been submerged in salty water during these high waters. 

Finally, you can also help in the smaller ways. Here is an ongoing map of the artisan stores that have been badly affected by the water but you can support them by ordering online or visiting them when you are next here.

Returning to Normal

Having said all this, Venice is at one of its most beautiful times of years right now. The crisp chill of winter has fully emerged but this is alongside crystal blue skies, making it a really unique time to visit the city. The streets are far quieter, the nights far cozier and a there is a necessity for decadent desserts after long wintery walks.

Find our special seasonal offers here , a last minute treat for you and your family or perhaps a weekend break for just the two of you.