It’s the 12th of November 2019. Evening has fallen over Venice and strong winds are battering the city. The weather forecast predicts ‘acqua alta’, an exceptionally high tide.
The water is expected to reach 140 centimetres. That’s very high, but nothing Venice hasn’t seen before. Nothing it can’t handle.
High tides aren’t new to Venetians. Over the centuries all of the locals have developed their own defences. The residents begin their day by putting up paratoie – small private flood barriers – in hope of stopping the tide on their doorstep.
As predicted, at 10:30 a.m. the water reaches the 140 cm mark. But it doesn’t stop there: a cyclone is approaching the coast.
As the cyclone hits Venice, the water keeps on rising. The wind has picked up, now blowing at over 100km/h.
People run around their homes frantically, trying to rescue everything they possibly can from the water. They put all of their belongings as high up as possible: on top of the wardrobe, on shelves… Outside, the tide continues to rise relentlessly. The sea isn’t just coming in through the front door; it’s invading every corner of people’s homes. The power must be turned off before the sockets are submerged.
The water level has risen to 150 cm. The waves in the canals intensify. They’re now destroying the railings, breaching every single barrier, sending boats tumbling onto the city streets. The wind isn’t dying down – on the contrary, it continues to build. The rain continues unabated. The tide is only getting higher and higher. Two thirds of the city is now under water.
Walter Muti, a newsagent who owns a newsstand on Fondamenta delle Zattere, a few metres from the Giudecca canal, listens to the wind violently rattling the walls around him. He senses that his life is in danger.
Walter takes a leap of faith, locks up his newsstand, and runs to catch the last vaporetto home.
All over the city it’s pitch black. People walk around using their phones as flashlights. The tide moves past the 160cm mark.
It’s now patently obvious. This is no ordinary storm. The water has seized control of Venice: it takes over the streets, barges into shops and houses. It swoops up and carries away every object in its path. Hotel managers urge their guests to leave their rooms at once and make their way to the upper floors. The shop owners, the museum keepers… everyone in Venice can sense that the circumstances are extreme. Currents this swift and this forceful are virtually unprecedented. It’s frightening. No one can cope with this kind of “acqua alta”.
By 9 p.m. the tide rises to 170cm. Streets and canals are now merged into one. Fridges, boats, fruit and vegetable crates – everything is being carried away by the unstoppable, relentless current. The sea has reclaimed Venice, a city presumptuous enough to be built on water, in open defiance of the powerful currents. When the cyclone moves inland at last, throughout the city the water has reached its peak.
Over 85% of Venice has been flooded: the cyclone that hit the city in November 2019 wrought some of the worst devastation in the city’s history.
Walter, the newsagent, spent the rest of the night safely indoors. When he went to work the next day, his newsstand, the place he’d gone every morning for the past 25 years, was gone, swept away by the storm. It was only found several days later on the seabed of the Giudecca canal.
This is "The Fifth Siren", a 5-episode series about Venice. Informed by conversations with writers, scientists, scholars, activists, and ordinary Venetians, this podcast is a love letter to the city’s unique magnetism, as well as a cautionary tale about the emergencies it is facing. The flood that hit the city in November 2019 is just the starting point of this story. We will look at mass tourism, analysing the city’s economic model, one which is driving out its very own residents. We will cast our gaze across the city’s history, examining how the Republic of Venice was built on a delicate environmental equilibrium which helped it to thrive. We will also explore how engineering and technology are already an integral part of the city, and how it will become even more crucial in the coming years. All in all, we will talk about a city where the present is already part of the past, a city based on a system which we know is unsustainable. A city which has the future knocking at its door more and more vigorously as the years go by, as witnessed during the 2019 acqua alta. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “the future enters into us in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens”. Because of its delicate complexity, Venice offers a unique vantage point from which we can see how mounting emergencies are shaping our world.
In October 1625, while sitting in his home on the island of Murano, the Venetian nobleman Francesco Luna recorded a frightening spectacle in his diary:
"In the evening the canal water rose higher than the quays, almost an arm’s length, and damaged many wells. The workplaces and glass shops here at Murano also suffered. The water started rising around midnight, and rose until the seventh hour of the night, with a great wind storm. And it was a dark night, so it was very frightening to behold. **I went by boat through the streets. One also could go above the quays, by boats and ships, into the warehouses…" **
The archives contain records of Venice’s squares and streets being inundated by devastating floods ever since the Middle Ages. Although these were exceptional events, today statistics show the floodwater’s high water mark has increased by 25%. The floods are becoming more frequent and they are striking with greater intensity. They’re becoming harder and harder to contain. Tides above 110 centimetres have become twice as frequent in the last 50-60 years. As for exceptional tides, that is, tides rising to 140 cm and above, in the 130 years between 1870 and 2000 9 such cases were registered. In the 19 years between 2000 and 2019, there were 11 of them.
Weather anomalies in the North Adriatic Sea are becoming more and more frequent, but on the 12th of November 2019, we witnessed an extraordinary event. There were two stationary blocking anticyclones, one in the Azores islands area and another one also in Eastern Europe. This occurrence, that is, two anticyclones combined, however typical, is not very frequent, and can significantly affect the tides’ behaviour. According to Alvise Papa, Head of Venice’s Tide Forecast and Warning Centre, weather conditions were wholly exceptional in November 2019. Not only did two blocking anticyclones occur at the same time, an uncommon, but not a rare occurence, but the effects they had on the tides lasted 27 days, instead of the usual 2.
But there was more to it than that.
**A small cyclone formed over the Adriatic sea, but rather than following its natural trajectory south-east, it headed up north, to the north-west. This unpredictable meteorological phenomenon moved all the way up to the estuary of the river Po, unleashing its force onto the region. ** The anomaly first appeared in the afternoon. It had the structure of the sub-tropical cyclones: small, compact, with a hot core, and an unusual wind field distribution. It was detected when it was less than 40 km from Venice. When it reached the lagoon and the city, it caused the untold damage we all saw back in November of 2019. **As president Obama said at the 2014 U.N. Climate Change Summit: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it”. Venice, more so than anywhere else, is living proof of this. So should the “acqua alta” of November 2019 still be considered exceptional? Perhaps we should just admit that it’s increasingly part of Venice’s present, fast becoming nothing out of the ordinary? An equilibrium achieved over many centuries is beginning to shift again, and this time the change could be irreversible. **
Venice is much more than just a city. With its constellation of many small islands, it is an “urban archipelago”. It has stood the test of time atop the lagoon’s shifting sands and hostile marshes, becoming a gemstone of culture and heritage. Its transformation started over a thousand years ago. It began as a series of minor settlements and went on to become one of the most powerful Empires in the Mediterranean. Through centuries of trade and commerce it established itself as a bridge between the Byzantine and Islamic East and Northern and Western Europe, a vibrant, multicultural city.
Today Venice is everywhere. It exists as a physical city made up of interlocked narrow streets and squares, known to Venetians as “calli” and “campi”, bordered by quiet canals. It’s both a labyrinth you can get lost in and a fish-shape in the middle of a lagoon.
Venice is an image projected in a camera obscura, a film frame, a Canaletto’s brushstroke on a canvas hanging in the National Gallery in London, a sentence on a page composed by Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, or John Ruskin. It has inspired many replicas: the Venetian luxury hotel in Las Vegas, the copycat city of Dalian in China, or the Grand Venice Mall in Greater Noida, India. Venice has left an indelible mark on the world’s imagination. The adjective Venetian is distinctive of a clearly recognisable style: Venetian music, Venetian painting, Venetian architecture. Traces of Venice pepper our daily lives. When New Yorkers or Parisians use ciao to say their goodbyes, they’re using a Venetian word, even though they might not realize it: ciao literally means “your slave” and has been in use in Venice for centuries to show reverence. When you order a Spritz, the ever-popular aperitif, you’re sipping on a drink invented in Venice’s bars.
But from time to time Venice is also an alarming news report about a city overwhelmed by catastrophe. This Venice is somewhat less poetic, but it’s definitely real.
Ever since the Middle Ages, the city of Venice has been calling itself “La Serenissima” ‘The Most Serene’ - a place where social harmony ensured prosperity. For centuries it has cultivated an image of harmony for itself, including harmony with the natural elements which surround it.
But behind this image of the water gently lapping against the rich marble of the canal banks, behind the sumptuous facades of its palaces, underneath its frescoes there is a grittier side: a world made of mud and wood, under the constant menace of rising water which can abruptly turn the city into a battleground.
The sirens you heard are part of a system based on the one used to warn Venetians about air raids during WWII. These days the sirens alert Venetians to an impending flood tide. The first one goes off to indicate that the water is expected to peak at 110cm. It’s one long, drawn out tone. For every 10cm increase in the expected level, another note is added, higher in pitch. The more tones there are, the higher the forecasted peak, an ascending scale of pitch and severity. But after the fourth one, that is, beyond the 140cm mark, there are no more sirens.
Past that point, it’s impossible to determine the severity of the emergency the city is facing. Will it stop there? Will it keep rising? Only silence fills the air. This is what happened in November 2019. No one saw it coming, people were not forewarned.
What if Venice were to be completely submerged one day?
I think 50 centimetres gives you an idea of what can happen and what will happen. This applies to oceans in general, to the Mediterranean, the Adriatic Sea, and also to Venice, because, unfortunately, they’re all linked. [...] Therefore if you do the computations, do the simulations you get a situation where basically you have to [...] close the lagoon about once a day in order to keep the water level [...] below 100-110 centimetres, which is the average height of Venice’s pavements. But Saint Mark’s square is far below the average pavement level. Because it's older, because it was built 800 years ago, other parts of the city were built later, so they're a bit higher. [...] The problem is if you want to close at the 80 centimetre-mark, and I actually did the maths for 2019, it would mean that you would have to close the barrier 120 times. Now, 120 times is one third of the year. This means you’d have to close the barriers for one day, then open them for two. This is already incredibly often. But we’re still talking about the present day. Add to this the sea level rise, factor in climate change, and all of this means that you will have to close the barriers more and more often. So basically, it is simply not possible to defend Venice from a flood of over 80 centimetres.
When the water reached 187 centimetres on 12th November 2019, there was no siren that could be sounded to warn the city. There is no siren for conveying such a high water level. It simply doesn’t exist.
All that the fourth siren, the highest one on the scale, could do was signal that the water had reached the “140 centimetres or more” mark. But how much more is “more”?
According to Dr Georg Umgiesser, Researcher in Oceanography at the National Research Institute of Marine Sciences, Italy’s leading marine science institute, unless the city is enclosed and protected, the piazza San Marco could be permanently submerged by the end of this century. Yet no one is talking about the extent to which global warming is endangering a city that’s already so vulnerable in so many ways. But denial and inaction are no longer options Venice can afford. The stakes are too high. Venice, as we know it, could disappear.
Venice is by no means the only place on the planet where rising tides threaten to unravel the urban fabric. The global call for solutions to the climate crisis is encapsulated in the city’s troubled waters, in the lagoon’s unique and delicate ecosystem. Today Venice is the stage for a number of crises, the place where the various contradictions inherent in our system intersect. Art and technology, tradition and short-termism, overtourism and population decline, a rich history and a murky future fraught with uncertainty. In this sense, global warming is a global crisis that is at once the cause and the consequence of many other crises. A crisis wrought by the civilisation that built Venice and which is now threatening to destroy it. This is a lens through which we can analyse our world and the system that threatens to shatter it. The city’s fragility is a microcosm of the fragility of our planet.
In his book ‘Invisible Cities’ Italo Calvino imagines a conversation between Marco Polo and his master Kublai Khan, the fifth emperor of the Mongolian empire. All night long Marco Polo entertains Khan with tales of his fabulous travels. By sunrise Marco has run out of stories to tell. Exhausted, he confesses to the Khan: “Master, I've told you about all of the cities I know.” “There is still one of which you never speak.”, said the Khan. Marco bowed his head to listen. "Venice," the Khan said. “Venice?” Marco smiled “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”