Archive for Venetian Environmental Issues


And speaking of animals

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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.

Lino spotted this gull because of his little identification anklet. Maybe he’s in the bird atlas by now, with a number if not a name.

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.

The Little Egret, which is abundant in the lagoon, doesn’t mind looking for a bite wherever the chances seem good, though they seem to be happier pecking through the shallows when the tide is low. There is a tree near the Vignole which at twilight in the summer is almost completely white with the egrets who’ve come to perch there for the night.

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.

A young Little Gull, photographed in Northumberland. Maybe he’s thinking about his Venetian vacation.

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.

A luscious look at acqua alta in the lagoon. A soaking marshy islet looks even better to a bird than it does to me.

This is the single grey heron I’ve seen here, always fishing between Sant’ Andrea and Sant’ Erasmo.

And of course the indefatigable seagulls. They look more attractive out here than plodding along the fondamentas ripping open plastic bags and strewing the garbage all around. Lino says nobody ever saw gulls in the canals, much less on the streets, when he was a boy. The same with cormorants, who we sometimes see fishing in our canal.

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The Consorzio Venezia Nuova looks at the lagoon but doesn’t see this. It sees endless floods of cash pouring into MOSE for all eternity.

I received this comment from an unknown reader, and while it’s right there in the Comments area of my blog, I wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to see it.  (I don’t assume that everybody reads the Comments.)

The obvious reply to Emiliano’s rhetorical question is “Of course they don’t want discussion,” to be followed by “Why would they want discussion?”  I would be surprised if any data is available, because I doubt that any such research has been done.  Because who would care?  Except Emiliano, I mean.


I’m an Italian scientist working on anti-fouling alternative solutions in Sweden. I wrote an email to “consorzio venezia nuova” in order to get some informations about the strategies they intend to put in act in order to minimize the risk of malfunction of the caissons as consequence of the formation of large colonies of fouling organism inside and outside the caissons. In my opinion the weight gain caused by the formation of colonies of barnacles and mytilus could make ineffective the floating system, i.e. even if you pump air in the caissons the caissons will rest on the bottom because the 3/4 of the volume will be occupied by fouling organisms. It could have been a great opportunity for cooperation between the consortium and scientific community, a challenging problem to solve together.
But the consortium answered “what kind of paint are you selling?”. The thing is that I’m not selling anything else that several years experience, a great network of anti fouling scientists all over the world and a EU financed project that we started in sept. 2012 and which will deal with similar problematic on cruising surfaces as boats.
I proposed them opportunity, innovation, research, in other world, science, but the Consortium seems more on the let’s make it happen here and now.
Whatever. I still can’t find anywhere some data regarding what countermeasures will be taken in this project as anti-fouling system. This would be great to know, it could help transparency and open a discussion. But maybe it is exactly what has to be avoided. Discussion!
I feel sorry for not being useful as a scientist in my country. This means that i will bit it and will keep doing my impact aboard as I already have done the past few years.
(if someone have some data about the antifouling countermeasure they gone to use please put here some link or reference)

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Why blame anybody?

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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?

If you saw this, would your first instinct be to call some city office to find out if it might be going to rain?

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.

If the Tide Center is predicting high water, why do so many people put their garbage bags out on the street? Does that mean they don’t believe the forecast? Or do they just not care? If they don’t care, then I think that pretty much closes the discussion on how distressing acqua alta is.  This event was December 1, 2008, but nothing has changed except the varying heights of the water.

This is a man willing to brave the ferocity of the elements to get the serum through to Nome. Sorry, I mean to get the boots somewhere to people who are evidently stranded. Funny thing is, by the time he gets home and they get the boots on, the water will be gone.

These people are dangerously irresponsible. Don’t they know they’re supposed to be frantic with worry and indignation?



Categories : Acqua Alta
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The water missed the exit

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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.

The water at the edge of our street, at 9:50 AM.

And the street across the canal. All quiet on the high-water front, at least in our neighborhood.

There is another high-water alert on for the next peak tide, tonight near midnight.  Naturally we will be paying attention.

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Categories : Acqua Alta
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