Archive for Acqua Alta
I suddenly realized that when I was proposing the going-away party for the boy — clothes, but possibly also food, because he must be really hungry by now — I didn’t mention the frog.
That was an oversight. So here’s the plan.
First, the frog would be freed.
Second, he would be given a large pile of small- and medium-sized rocks to throw at the boy.
Third, he would be given a hundred things his heart might desire, from the unlisted phone numbers of Charles Ray (sculptor) and Francois Pinault (collector), to his own private estate with tennis court and helipad in the Great Moss Swamp, to a date with every winner of the Miss Humanity of the Netherlands pageant. And a huge party at the Waldorf-Astoria for freed dolphins, liberated dancing bears, wounded hedgehogs, rehabilitated slow lorises, and birds whose owners accidentally left their cages open. He’ll also have his own smorgasbord with all the beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, and Purina Frog Chow he’ll ever want. And a trampoline. And a pony.
While we’re on the subject of animals, here’s something you might find interesting. More than 240 species of birds spend at least some, if not all, of their time in the Venetian lagoon and immediate vicinity.
An article in the Gazzettino announced this fact along with the notice of the publication of a new atlas of birds, the result of five years of data-gathering. For the record, the title is “Uccelli di laguna e di citta’ – L’atlante ornitologico del comune di Venezia 2006-2011,” written by Mauro Bon and Emanuele Stival, ornithologists of the Museum of Natural History, published by Marsilio.
Of these birds, 142 species come only for the winter, 115 come to nest, and about 60 are migrating. If you stop and read that over again, I think you’ll be respectfully amazed. In fact, the lagoon is at a crucial point on a major north-south flyway, and is one of the largest lagoons left in Europe. It’s far from being just scenery.
Even though I’ve never seen them, I now have learned that there is a Hungarian royal seagull which arrives in the fall, and spends the winter in the Giardini Reali between the Piazza San Marco and the lagoon. And there is an extremely rare black-legged kittiwake that comes from England.
I was already interested in birds because rowing around the lagoon at all hours and in all seasons means that you see plenty of them. For one thing, they’re everywhere. For another, they’re generally easier to see than fish.
Some of the birds I’ve come to recognize are as much as part of Venice as canals and tourists. The svasso (grebe) and tuffetto (little grebe), only appear in the winter. The cormorants, mallards, seagulls, egrets and herons are here all year. I’ve already gone on too long about my passion for blackbirds (a few months per year), and I’ve never bothered to mention pigeons because there’s nothing worth saying about them. They are the roaches of the avian world; they’ll be here pecking around and crooning after the last nuclear device explodes. I am prepared for hostile letters from pigeon-feeders.
There is one kingfisher who I watch for as we row behind the Vignole; all you can see is a flash of iridescent blue-green flitting through the trees and over the water. I wish he’d hold still somewhere just for a minute, but he’s not interested in being admired.
In the plush summer nights we almost always hear a solitary owl called a soleta (civetta in Italian), somewhere high in the trees in the Public Gardens. He or she makes a soft one-tone hoot, repeated pensively at perfectly regular intervals. It’s like a metronome, far away. It goes on for hours. It’s very comforting.
For two days not long ago we were startled to see a fluffy young gull we’d never seen before, standing on the fondamenta gazing out at the lagoon. Determined research revealed that it is a Little Gull. We haven’t seen it since.
And one magical winter day a trio of swans flew over us. You hardly ever see the wild swans, but here were three, flying so low that I could see their long necks undulating slightly and hear a curious murmur from their throats.
Many of these birds depend on organisms and elements in the lagoon wetlands which exist because of, or are replenished by, acqua alta. If so many people who never leave the city didn’t get so worked up about having to put on boots, the water could continue to provide for lots of creatures who like being here too. Maybe your tourist or trinket-seller doesn’t care about the birds, but the birds probably don’t care about the Doge’s Palace and Harry’s Bar. Just saying.
The peak tide forecast for last night at 11:20 PM was 130 cm.
At around 8:30 we heard the siren, with three tones. Not a happy sound, but one that does not portend water in our house.
About an hour later, sirens again, with four tones. Not happy at all, though we still have a chance of staying dry. Evidently the scirocco had gotten stronger. In fact, we could (as usual in these cases) hear it making its customary deep roar out along the Lido’s Adriatic beaches.
At 10:00 PM, a look out the window revealed water ambling inland. It had just gone past our first step, which is fine because as long as it’s moving forward it’s not moving upward (at least, not much).
At 10:30 PM, another look showed that the water wasn’t ambling inland anymore. It was just sitting there, with a few little ripples here and there. And no longer did we hear the wind roaring, which meant the wind had either dropped or changed direction.
Reprieved! Because the fact that the tide was due to turn in less than an hour (an imprecise prediction, but that’s what we were going by) meant that at 10:30 the tide was already entering the phase known to us as “stanca,” or “tired.” Slowing down. Losing headway. Coasting in neutral. However you want to think of it.
Therefore the tide wouldn’t be rising much more, if at all, before it began to go out.
At 11:00 PM, the tide was visibly receding. Early! I’ll take it!
So, instead of getting water nearly up to our top step, as per the warning sirens, it didn’t even make it halfway up the first step. My guess is that it would have been a two-siren height, at best.
The traditional conundrum: Which is worse? When the Tide Center’s prediction turns out to be right? Or when it’s wrong?
I haven’t read today’s newspaper’s account of all this because they become pretty monotonous. One truly monotonous component is the assortment of complaints from people about how inaccurate the forecast was, and the weary reply from the Tide Center that with the few coins a year they’re allotted as financing, it’s a wonder they get anything done at all.
I’d like to add another viewpoint in support of the Tide Center, run by the exemplary Paolo Canestrelli, who has been dealing with this for decades. (I would bet money that when he retires — the prospect of which must be the one thing that keeps him going — he is going to go live in a yurt on the steppes of Outer Mongolia.)
Here is my viewpoint: Why cast blame on the Tide Center? It was established in the early Seventies in order to alert the city to possible exceptional high tides — a decision clearly inspired by the Infamous Acqua Alta (IAA, to me) of 1966.
But there had been plenty of high waters up until then. Venetians had grown up with it, and most of them could recognize the signs of impending high water. They didn’t need a siren to tell them what was going on.
Or did they?
I said “most of them.” Lino’s brother-in-law, Roberto, for some reason, seems to have been born government-tropic, leaning instinctively toward what officials say and not what his eyes transmitted to his very own brain. This was unfortunate, because Roberto lived on the ground floor below Lino’s apartment.
Lino remembers that on that fateful November 4 there had been heavy weather all day (wind, higher-than-usual tide, all the usual markers). He knew when the tide was supposed to turn, therefore he noticed immediately that it had not, in fact, turned. Which meant that six hours later, when it was supposed to rise again, it was going to begin rising from a much higher level than usual.
While he was evaluating all this, he looked up at the cable (phone? electricity?) strung high up across his street. He saw a rat running along it.
That’s when he knew it was time to start preparing for serious water.
So he went to his brother-in-law and said, “Hey Roberto, we’re in for really high water — we’ve skipped a tide turn and the water’s not going down. I’ll help you get your furniture upstairs.”
To which Roberto replied, “No no, nothing’s going to happen. The city (I don’t know what office that would have been back then) says that blah blah we’re going to be okay blah blah.”
To which Lino said, “Listen, it’s not looking good AT ALL. I will help you carry your things upstairs! Let’s get on it!”
To which Robert replied, “No no, blah blah they said nothing’s going to happen blah blah.”
To which Lino replied, “Suit yourself.”
And so, two days later, Roberto had to throw out virtually all of his furniture, which was so full of lagoon water it would never be usable again.
I wasn’t there, but I knew him years after this event, and he was still not the type to say, “Boy, did I ever screw up. Why didn’t I listen to you?” He was the type, of which there is now an over-supply, who would have blamed the city for having erred in its prediction.
It strikes me that people nowadays have come to use the Tide Center as a crutch. By which I don’t mean everybody should take a course in meteorology, or that the Tide Center is incompetent, because it isn’t.
What I mean is that there are too many variables in the weather (such as the wind suddenly dropping) for the Tide Center to keep up with, minute by minute, to ensure that every single person in Venice is going to know, every single minute, what to do.
There was a life before the Tide Center, and when there was acqua alta most people were well aware it was on the way. When Lino was a boy, people didn’t even wear rubber boots. Who had money to spend on boots? You went barefoot, as I occasionally have done.
Now there’s a Tide Center, and instead of helping people act more intelligently (its fundamental purpose), its mere existence seems to have given people an excuse to behave like quivering bewildered rabbits.
The Tide Center isn’t there to save you, people. Only you can do that.
The acqua alta which was anticipated for this morning at 9:40 — and which was announced with the necessary and appropriate siren plus three tones at 6:15 — didn’t make it ashore.
That is to say, I imagine there was some H20 in the Piazza San Marco, but the maximum height the water reached was 103 cm above sea level, not the expected 130.
I felt I ought to report on this, to reassure anyone who might have thought I’d be shifting furniture at dawn, but even more to reassure people that weather forecasts here can be just as imprecise as anywhere. If that’s reassuring.
Faithful reader Debi Connor asked for pictures, so here goes. I know that this is not the scene she expected. It’s not the scene I expected either, but it’s a lovely thing to behold.
There is another high-water alert on for the next peak tide, tonight near midnight. Naturally we will be paying attention.
November 11, if you’ll cast your minds back, was a day with more than the usual high water. By “usual,” I don’t mean as in “happens every day” — I mean as in “doesn’t seem strange.”
The international press took a small recess from its daily barrage of stories of bombing, war and death and swerved its attention to acqua alta. Exciting stories about high water were hurriedly written by people whose brains were sending out sparks, like old Communist-era light switches.
As I sit here this evening, I can’t help noticing that 15 days have passed without a drop of water sneaking out of place. But that’s not interesting, so nobody reports on that. It’s more fun to treat each acqua alta as if it were the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse.
So here’s a bulletin: Another high water is forecast for Wednesday, which is more than likely because a large low-pressure system is bearing down on us, and a really strong scirocco will be blowing, and the moon will be full. (There are also thunderstorms thrown in, no extra charge.) If I can know this two days in advance, so can all the people out there who keen and ululate when their stuff gets wet.
But what is really on my mind about acqua alta isn’t how normal it is, how there have always been acquas alta, ever since there was a lagoon. I’m evaluating proportions.
The lagoon covers about 212 square miles. The city of Venice covers about three square miles. The lagoon has been here for 5,000 years. The city of Venice for about 1,500, give or take.
The city and the lagoon were both designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1987, hence were considered worthy of the same attention and concern. Not to mention all those blue ribbons awarded the lagoon by the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands.
Yet when the tide rises, suddenly the lagoon doesn’t matter anymore. Even people who think of themselves as lovers of nature and defenders of the environment seem to blank out on the fact that the lagoon is one of the most important wetlands in Europe; that it is one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the Mediterranean Basin, that it plays a crucial role in the life of aquatic birds all over Europe. That high tide might be normal; that the lagoon might matter as much as Venice. Nope. You get a foot of water on the ground and suddenly it’s all about the city. I think that’s wrong.
I was thinking: What if we took an enormous batch of wilderness (say, Yellowstone National Park). Then we decided to put a city there. Why? Well, just because we decided to.
Then the wilderness starts to be bothersome to the people in that city. Therefore the wilderness has to be fixed so it won’t be so bothersome. We’ve got to cut back on bears, and on wolves, and on antelope; let’s get those pesky (fill in the blank here) under control. There are too many (fill in here), so let’s send them away. There is too much (fill in here) right where we want to (fill in here), so let’s fix that. We need more space to park cars. We need more electricity. And so on. Day by day all that world that was doing fine before we got there becomes more and more of a problem.
I am not romanticizing the past, nor am I proposing that we all get in the car and drive back to Eden. I know that the Venetians did plenty of jiggering with the lagoon in the olden days. But they were actually on the lagoon’s side. They understood it, they profited by it, they needed it. Their main concern wasn’t having too much water, but too little — they diverted entire rivers, including the Po, to prevent the lagoon from silting up. They liked the water.
Of course there were occasionally extreme acqua altas which caused extreme problems (such as ruining all the freshwater wells). But no Venetian of the Great Days would have proposed anything like MOSE — inconceivably vast, and expensive, and demonstrably destructive to the lagoon, and utterly irreversible. Anyone who damaged the lagoon, according to an old declaration, ought to be compared to someone who damaged the defensive walls of their city — an enemy of the state.
Conclusion: We’ve got a city where it really doesn’t belong, though we’re all really glad it’s here. But the lagoon, not to put too fine a point on it, is just as valuable, and as irreplaceable, as the city.
So I want everybody to just get off the lagoon’s case. I’m going to get the boots out, and then I’m going to bed.