Venice Under a State of Emergency as Historic High Tide Floods City

By Brian Kahn on at

The City of Canals has become a city underwater as the worst flooding to hit Venice in 50 years engulfed 85 per cent of the city this week.

On Tuesday night, floodwaters rose 187 centimetres (a bit more than six feet). They inundated the city’s plazas and overtopped canals, spilling into the iconic Saint Mark’s Basilica for only the sixth time in 1,200 years of record keeping there. The floods are a snapshot of climate change and the fact that humanity is nowhere near ready for its impacts.

Venice has lived with water for its entire existence, and it’s no stranger to increasingly regular flooding. But the high tide that slammed into the city on Tuesday night rose to a different level. A full moon was already set to drive a higher than normal tide, but a powerful storm churning in the Mediterranean helped push flooding into overdrive.

A swirling area of low pressure known in some meteorological circles as a “medicane” (a portmanteau for Mediterranean hurricane) stirred up the sea near Algeria earlier this week and helped funnel water up the Adriatic Sea and contributed to kickstarting another storm in the region.

“The medicane made landfall on Monday, but some of its energy got absorbed by a much larger upper storm and surface low over the Mediterranean,” Bob Henson, a meteorologist with the Weather Company, wrote in an email to us. “It looks like the latter system is what drove the winds and seas up the Adriatic toward Venice on Tuesday.”

Steady winds around 30 mph battered the city all afternoon into the evening. Weather data kept by the city also shows pressure dropped steadily all day before taking a nosedive Tuesday night, an indication of an intense storm approaching.

That combination sent water surging into the city as warning sirens rang out in the night. The city scrambled to deal with the waters inundating homes and landmarks alike. Among the most shocking scenes were workers pushing water out of Saint Mark’s, which the BBC reports has rarely seen flooding like Tuesday’s in its long history. Venice has only seen one higher tide, a 1966 event where floodwaters reached 194 centimetres (6.25 feet). Floodwaters are expected to continue cresting anywhere from 50-100 centimetres (1.5-3 feet) above astronomical high tide for the rest of this week as more intense weather batters the region. All that has led Luigi Brugnaro, the city’s mayor, to declare a state of emergency as the city surrounded by water finds itself under siege.

Of course, it’s impossible to honestly talk about the floods without talking about sea level rise driven by climate change. The city has seen about 11 inches of sea level rise since the late 19th century. That means humanity’s reliance on burning fossil fuels to drive the economy has played a major role in the catastrophic floods, something Brugnaro rightfully pointed to in a tweet. Unless fossil fuel use is curtailed, these types of floods will become the norm.

It’s also impossible to talk about those risks without talking about how unprepared we are for the future. Venice is a prime example. The city has spent more than 15 years working on a multi-billion-euro massive flood barrier. It’s taken much longer than expected to complete due to cost overruns and corruption, and its 2011 completion date has been pushed back to 2022. The whole project neatly encapsulates many of the issues around climate adaptation, from the failure to complete projects to the fact that whatever we build might not even be enough to stop climate change from impacting us. That means turning to currently unconventional ideas like moving away from the coast and completely reimagining cities to co-exist with water rather than just trying to keep it out. Because, as the Venice floods show, water will always find a way.

Featured image: Getty