Mar
03

Acqua alta: here we go again

By

If there’s one thing people everywhere know about Venice, it’s that sometimes those romantic canals try to  barge into your house.  

This is the kind of image that is often presented as "the end is nigh" for Venice.  As you see, the man is having hysterics.

This is the kind of image that is often presented as "the end is nigh" for Venice. As you see, the man is having hysterics.

Rather than “flooding,” Venetians call this acqua alta, or “high water”   (literally “high tide”).   Or, depending on how deep it’s likely to be, sometimes they call it “acqua in terra,” or “water on the ground,” which is less dramatic and often more accurate.  

I’ve got water on the brain at the moment because night before last,  the warning siren sounded again.    It indicated the lowest predicted level, one out of four, which was nice, and in the end we barely got any at all.   With rare exceptions, acqua alta, more than being some kind of apocalyptic affliction, as it is often portrayed,  is really a low-grade  nuisance.   If it happens often, as it has this winter, it becomes as  annoying as any other uninvited guest who doesn’t realize it’s time to go home.

There are  so  many notions people  have about high water,  based on the generally inaccurate and overwrought accounts in the press,  that I thought I’d review and readjust a few of them.  

  • It’s always happening, or likely to happen.   Not really.   This winter we’ve had more acqua in terra (again, not really what I’d call “alta”) more often than many other winters.   On the other hand, there have been  years when I haven’t put my boots on even once.   Yet all kinds of claims keep being thrown around in stories written about this little phenomenon. The website of the basilica of San Marco  states that water begins to flood the Piazza San Marco, just in front of the church,  250 days a year.   Check my math, but that works out to 8 months.  A  photo caption on the National Geographic website claims that Venice  has high water ten times a month.  That’s crazy talk.
  • It creates, or will create,  really  big, really bad problems.  
    If for some reason your kids (or somebody else's) don't have boots, high water can be somewhat demanding. Then again, why don't they just go barefoot? I've done it and I'm still alive.

    If for some reason your kids (or somebody else's) don't have boots, high water can be somewhat demanding. Then again, why don't they just go barefoot? I've done it and I'm still alive.

    I’m not sure what people think those might be, but the words “acqua alta” seem to inspire a lot of hyperventilating outside Venice (and even inside Venice, mostly from merchants around the Piazza San Marco).   I’m not saying that having to put the stuff in your store up on higher shelves isn’t annoying, or that having to sweep out the receding brackish water and then wash the floor with fresh water isn’t annoying.   But in 9 cases out of 10, the situation doesn’t exceed the annoyance level — not much worse than having to shovel the snow out of the driveway for the fiftieth time this winter.

  • It’s going to be alarmingly deep.   Those fun photos of people rowing boats in the Piazza San Marco don’t ever show how deep the water actually is.   (In fact, those boats can be rowed in four inches of water.)   Venice isn’t flat as a griddle — the streets undulate as much as the water does, which you discover when the water comes ashore.   There can be dry spots even in a wet street.  
  • The entire city’s drowning.   The municipal tide center reports that when the tide is predicted to reach 110 cm above mean sea level, 14 percent of Venice has water on the ground.   And that  that might not be a depth of more than an inch or two.    Fourteen percent    doesn’t strike me as an immense area, and several percentages of that would always  be the Piazza San Marco, the lowest point in the city.

    When the water starts to rise in the Piazza San Marco, it looks like this.  Sometimes it doesn't get any higher than this amount.  I guess you could say Venice was flooding, but there are still plenty of dry spots left.

    When the water starts to rise in the Piazza San Marco, it looks like this. Sometimes it doesn't get any higher than this amount. I guess you could say Venice was flooding, but there are still plenty of dry spots left.

  • It’s going to hurt you, or hurt something.    Not that I’ve noticed.   Acqua alta is  nothing like real floods. Rivers overflowing their banks in torrential rainstorms are dangerous; tsunamis are dangerous.   With acqua alta, nobody dies.   People survive, buildings survive, art works are fine.    The water rises very gently, even politely.   Despite the distraught tones in which the event is almost always reported, I still don’t understand why the mere term seems to have acquired such a menacing overtone.

    If the water rises near a low sidewalk, it flows over the edge.  It's even more common -- as here in the Piazza San Marco -- for it to come up through the storm drains.  Naturally it also goes out the same way.

    If the water rises near a low sidewalk, it flows over the edge. It's even more common -- as here in the Piazza San Marco -- for it to come up through the storm drains. Naturally it also goes out the same way.

Acqua alta is not dangerous.   It’s not even especially upsetting.   In my experience, if it happens more than a few times, though, it can begin to seem like a two-year-old who’s gotten into the “Why?” groove.   Nothing wrong with it, really, except that it gets to be irritating.   The kid turns three, and spring and summer come, and all of this fades from memory.  

In my next post: A few real-life aspects of acqua alta which tend to mitigate its fearsome reputation.

 

     

True, this was not one of our most amusing moments.  And it didn't stop there, nor did our impressive barrier do much good to keep it out.  This was once in six years.

True, this was not one of our most amusing moments. And it didn't stop there, nor did our impressive barrier do much good to keep it out. But this has happened only once (for about two hours) in the six years we've lived here.

 

If you were looking for a new apartment and saw this, you might think twice.  The barrier you could kind of accept, but a pump as well?  Not good.

If you were looking for a new apartment and saw this, you might think twice. The barrier you could kind of accept, but a pump as well? Not good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories : Nature, Problems, Water

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  1. I hope you will continue to develop a passionate community here, I’ve quite appreciated the experience of reading your blog so far.

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