Archive for Water
Saint Martin’s day yesterday was a lot more emphatic than it usually is with the banging of pots and pans by kids on a quest for candy. In addition to the kids, and the traditional cookies, we got acqua alta — the second visitation of the season, and it was noticeable. The news tonight reported that it had reached 149 cm (4.8 feet) above sea level, the sixth highest since 1872. (The highest on record remains November 4, 1966, which was 190 cm/6.2 feet).
Water didn’t enter our hovel, but it didn’t miss by much.
We heard the sirens sound, as expected, two hours before the peak predicted for 8:20 AM. There were three extra tones, which indicated an anticipated maximum of 120 cm (3.9 feet). Not long after that, we heard the sirens again, this time with four tones (140 cm/4.5 feet). At that point we sat up and began to pay attention.
What made this event more interesting than usual wasn’t simply the height of the water, it was the speed of the wind — I mean, the force of the scirocco, which is always a major factor in keeping the lagoon in when it wants to go out. The wind was blowing around 40 km/hr (24 mph), with gusts of 55 km/hr (34 mph).
All this was part of a major weather system that hit large areas of Italy leaving real drama and destruction in its wake — mudslides, blocked roads, fallen trees, and more mayhem than we could ever manage here, thank God.
Naturally we went out to buy the newspaper and look around the neighborhood. I don’t usually take pictures of acqua alta anymore, as they have long since become repetitive. But this was toward the unusual side of the daily scale of nuisances.
Of course I’m glad the water didn’t exceed our top step, but if it had, I’d still be alive. This is the first of my annual pleas to the world to ignore the wailing and gnashing and published or broadcast claims that the city has been driven to its knees. I do not consider the fact that a tourist has had wade across the Piazza San Marco carrying her suitcase on her head an indication of anything larger than a temporary annoyance — it certainly does not make even the tiniest wail begin to form anywhere in my thorax. Anyone who has been dealing with Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath — not to mention people in stricken areas of Tuscany and Umbria — would find the suggestion that a large but temporary inconvenience could be compared to life-threatening catastrophe not only ridiculous, but offensive. By noon the water was all gone and the streets were drying off.
So the Costa Concordia ran aground (January 13) and the administration here instantly went into several varieties of fits to show how eager it was to ensure that no such catastrophe could ever be inflicted on the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world by one of these leviathans, whose number is increasing at a Biblical rate.
Mission: Banish the Big Ships from the Bacino of San Marco where they might well run into a section of historic and irreplaceable real estate. I haven’t seen any calculations on the odds of this risk, but they may be similar to the odds of winning the lottery.
Lots of people who buy a lottery ticket think/hope that the probability of winning could be pretty good. In the same way, lots of people who see the big ships passing think/fear that the probability of a huge catastrophe could be pretty good. The distance between “could” and “might” is hard to measure when emotions run high.
The mayor, of course, promised rapid solutions, to be followed, naturally, by immediate results (hence the use of the word “solution”). As expected, “rapid” is morphing into “eventual” on its way to “maybe” and then — who knows? — “never.”
The first proposal launched — and so quickly as to have barely resulted from first thoughts, much less second thoughts — was to dig a new canal. The environmental damage this would cause is so vast and so obvious that it’s hard to believe it was even discussed. A large amount of information demonstrating what a terrible idea it is was instantly thrown in front of this notion to prevent its going any further (latest detail: deepening the Canale di Sant’ Angelo would mean having to tear out and reposition somewhere else a certain quantity of important cables buried there, not to mention the high-tension-wire pylons flanking it). Even the cost of this undertaking hasn’t caused this notion to be officially abandoned, but its momentum seems to have slowed.
But if a new canal makes no sense, the proposal made a few days ago obliterates the line between creative and cuckoo. I wouldn’t even have mentioned it, but I wanted to show how really hard it is to come up with an alternative to the present system.
Ferruccio Falconi, a retired port pilot (who you might think would be more familiar with the lagoon and its behavior than most), has pulled the pin on the following idea and tossed it at the groin of common sense.
He proposes gouging out the mudbanks between the island of Sant’ Erasmo and the inlet at San Nicolo’, an area known as bacan’ (bah-KAHN). On the map, it looks like useless empty space longing for a purpose in life. But it already has a purpose — two of them.
Its first purpose is the same as that of similar areas which compose the bloody-but-unbowed natural lagoon ecosystem. Mudbanks and barene, the remnants of marshy wetlands scattered around, are an essential component of the lagoon environment. You may not care about clams and herons and glasswort, but these formations also slow the speed of the tide, something that ought to interest people ashore in the most-beautiful-city at least as much as the vision of a ship heading toward the fondamenta.
Its second purpose is as one of the all-time favorite places for thousands of pleasure-boaters to spend long summer days swimming and clamming and picnicking.
But according to Falconi, the creation of a basin where nature never put, or wanted, or intends to keep one, would be the perfect place to park the cruise ships. Ergo, there would also have to be the construction of a huge jetty.
As simple geometry, it looks okay, though I failed geometry. But apart from the problems the size, weight, and propeller-power those eight little rectangles represent, there is also the inconvenient fact that Sant’ Erasmo is an island, raising the issue of by what means the floating Alps of the sea would be provisioned, and how the passengers would arrive and depart.
Simple: By boat. Thereby increasing by several powers of ten the amount of waves (motondoso) caused by the multiplied number of motorized craft running around the area (barges, taxis, launches, and scows carrying trucks). Motondoso has already damaged a lot of the lagoon, so this new activity would eradicate a new chunk of what’s left. The summer motorboats are already sufficiently destructive — why would even more be seen as a good thing?
This idea is yet another example of the point where Feasibility and Desirability break up, despite the best efforts of people with assorted motives to make them get married and have children.
The following letter to the Gazzettino (March 29, 2012) gives an excellent analysis of this suggestion (translated by me):
LAGUNA CROCIERE E GRANDI NAVI (Lagoon, cruises, and big ships)
I read in the Gazzettino of the new proposal to “save” the cruises.
One appreciates the fantasy that unfortunately is right in step with the temerity of certain choices which we see at all institutional levels in the management of this problem.
To excavate bacan’ at Sant’ Erasmo to make it feasible for the big ships to maneuver and moor, ships which are tending to get bigger, would signify changing the hydrodynamics of the North Lagoon.
The creation of the new island in front of the inlet (at San Nicolo’) has already caused an increase in the velocity of the incoming tide, creating hydrodynamic imbalances with important consequent damage to the city.
To create a basin of 12 meters (40 feet) deep, at the least, to move and accommodate ships would make even that piece of lagoon into a piece of the sea.
Perhaps the fanciful pilot who has come up with this “loveliness” has forgotten about the abyss in front of San Nicolo’ with the resulting collapse of the bastions of the Fort of Sant’ Andrea a few years ago.
One understands that unfortunately the mentality still hasn’t changed: One tries to resolve a problem creating others. Or to put it this way: the application of the theory that has created MOSE: one creates a “solution” which, to talk about it, resolves the effects but not the cause.
The question arises spontaneously: Is the port worth the city?
(signed) Manuel Vecchina, Venezia
Excellent question, but don’t put it to Falconi. He’s already got the answer.
The Venetian lagoon is one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the entire Mediterranean. A century ago there were 35 square miles of salt-marsh wetlands in the lagoon; due to erosion by motondoso and the tidal force increased by the Petroleum Canal, by 1990 there were only 18 square miles left. Now we have MOSE, the floodgates whose installation required extreme deepening of the inlets, creating even stronger tidal flows.
In little more than 30 years, some 25,000,000 cubic meters of sediment have been flushed out to sea. At the current rate of erosion, the World Wildlife Fund has estimated that by 2050 there will be no wetlands left. So Venice is spending masses of money to rebuild a batch of them where they’ve been eroded away. Where they will be eroded away again. Now we want a fantasy port to speed up the process which is turning the lagoon into a bay of the sea?
I sometimes think that if these people want to change the lagoon so much, why don’t they just drop a bomb on it, and get it over with?
The reference to the Fort of Sant’ Andrea in Vecchini’s letter recalls the fact that some years ago (even before MOSE) the force of the tide was eroding the island beneath this historic structure, and the walls of the entrance were beginning to sag and open up. Solution: Throw masses of cement on the shallow lagoon bottom in front of it to stop the slow-motion collapse. When we row past there, we have to avoid what is essentially a broad cement shelf reaching outward from the fort. Of course I’m glad it’s there. I’m just saying.
Venice wanted the ships, but playing with them and their effects is beginning to look a lot like getting into a game of strip poker with no cards at all.
And no clothes, either.
January 6, as all the world knows, is the Feast of the Epiphany in the non-Orthodox Christian calendar. Here in Venice, as most of the world by now must know (if it’s been following my bulletins), the day is personified by a grizzled old woman with a broomstick. This cheerful hag is known as the Befana.
Her arrival and swift departure bring joy to overstimulated and overfed children, even if the joy is tarnished by the fact that she signals the official end of the holiday period — back to school, the party’s over.
Anyone walking around Venice will have noticed, even with only one eye open (not recommended, unless that eye is dedicated to scanning the pavement ahead where the remnants of canine overfeeding may well be waiting), that her distinguishing characteristic is candy — specifically, a stocking full of it known as the calza caena (KAL-tzah kah-EH-na).
But anyone who has foregone the city for an afternoon ramble in the lagoon during this period will have noticed that her distinguishing characteristic is exceptional low tide. This phenomenon is known as the “secche de la marantega barola,” or the exposed-sandbanks-of-the-ugly-old-lady.
High tide, of course, is the star around here, inspiring in transient visitors (fancy term for tourists) a mixture of fear, loathing, terror, pity, catharsis, and whatever other epic emotions a couple of inches of water on the ground can stimulate. High water also makes for interesting pictures, even if they are all pretty much the same.
But every year I feel much greater emotions inspired instead by the absence of water. When the tide really, seriously goes out, as it always does in this little window of time, a concealed world emerges, to the joy of the foraging wildfowl and the marveling eyes of your correspondent. I know it’s not magic — it just feels like it.
The first time I saw this phenomenon I was taken completely by surprise. Looking from the Lido across the lagoon toward Venice, I saw, instead of the usual expanse of grayish-greenish-blueish water, a vast swath of brilliant emerald green, dazzling marine vegetation gleaming in the sunshine. It was like seeing Nebraska with bell-towers. Of course I knew that the lagoon bottom wasn’t as empty and flat as the high-school swimming pool, but seeing it was astonishing. I was hooked.
Why does January (or this year, also late December) always favor us with this phenomenon? Myself, I’d just give the credit to the Befana and move on, but curiosity has nagged me into looking for a real answer.
After more research than I anticipated, most of which only led me dangerously deeper into the astronomical wilds, I will hazard a summary of the situation.
It’s all based on the indestructible link between the sun, the moon, the earth’s orbit, gravity, centrifugal force,and probably other things as well. (There is also a correlation between high pressure and low tide — the higher the first, the lower the second.) But this only tells us what, not why.
One source explains: ”The gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun both contribute to the tides. The sun’s gravitational force is greatest when the earth is closest to the sun (perihelion – early January) and least when the sun is furthest from earth (aphelion – early July).”
Basically, the sun’s pull can heighten the moon’s effects or counteract them, depending on where the moon is in relation to the sun.
The Moon follows an elliptical path around the Earth which has a perigee distance of 356,400 kilometers, which is about 92.7 percent of its mean distance. Because tidal forces vary as the third power of distance, this little 8 percent change translates into 25 percent increase in the tide- producing ability of the Moon upon the Earth. If the lunar perigee occurs when the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth, it produces unusually high Spring (not the season Spring) high tides. When it occurs on the opposite side from the Earth that where the Sun is located (during full moon) it produces unusually low, Neap Tides.
Neap: from the Anglo-Saxon hnep, meaning scanty. I knew you were wondering.
It so happened that the day I took the most dramatic photographs was December 23, when the waning moon was one millimeter from being completely new, which it was on the following day. I maintain that the new moon has the same effect as the full moon, as described above.
To sum up: In January, therefore, I deduce that the relative positions of the sun (low) and moon (high) combine with other factors — such as the aforementioned high pressure — to produce the unusually low tide.
You can have your Bay of Fundy, and I’ll throw in Mont-St. Michel as well. I wait all year for this moment to see the lagoon revealed in its spectacular variety and richness.
Postscript: Low tide in the city is also diverting, revealing banks of mud lining the canal walls which were churned up by months, even years, of passing motorboats. It also, may I point out, creates at least as many problems as high water — if not more — for normal life here. If the ambulance or the fireboat doesn’t have enough water to get to your house, it’s arguably worse for the quality of life than whatever happens in acqua alta — for example, having to put on boots for a few hours. This aspect of the secche de la marantega deserves a chapter of its own, but not today.
- The one and a half days that the Pope spent in and around Venice have left a pleasant glow, it appears, in the hearts of virtually everyone, even the gondoliers. There was a special glow radiating from the Patriarch of Venice, too, which shone, in my opinion, from the eternal flame in his innermost being where his desire to become Pope burns night and day.
But there was no sturm, neither was there any drang. The four gondoliers who rowed His Holiness across the Grand Canal all said they got really emotional; one even said he had goosebumps when it struck him he was rowing the Pope himself.
My goosebumps were also abundant but they were caused less by emotion (sorry) than by the relentless cold wind which was blowing from the east on Saturday afternoon.
Lino and I, along with about 50 other people, waited outdoors at the Naval College to greet the Pope as he passed from his helicopter to the motor launch. Wind is fine, but we ended up standing for three solid hours out there, drastically underdressed. So I win two extra points for having chills even before the Pope appeared.
A few of my other memories are similarly physical. Speaking of standing for three hours (his helicopter landed at the Naval College 45 minutes late) the wind wasn’t the worst part. It was only the suspense of waiting that smothered the desperate Mayday-Maydays from my feet.
I can tell you that if the Pope had looked at my feet, he’d have seen two attractive beige pumps with a moderately low heel. If he’d looked at my face, he would have realized that this footwear had been designed by Torquemada, the “hammer of the heretics.” Lino helped me limp home.
The Pope himself, I can confirm from very close range, is very small, very thin, and very old. All those vestments and the magical amplifying effects of television obscure these facts.
I was also musing — as I stood there, resisting hypothermia — on how relatively simple it appears to be Pope, in the sense that his every moment is managed by phalanxes of people of every description. The area was pullulating with important men who couldn’t keep still. They arrived, they departed, singly or in small groups, while we all tried to interpret what significance these movements might have. Naval people, from the Commandant down to the sailor with the bosun’s whistle, mixed with lots of men in dark suits and dark glasses who looked like narcs.
As for maintaining the safety of the area, there were firemen, divers in wetsuits checking the underwater area where his launch was waiting; State Police, Carabinieri, Guardia di Finanza, Civil Protection, Capitanerie di Porto. Any entity whose agents are entitled to wear a uniform, or a badge, or carry some communication device, had somebody there.
When the Pope arrived, all these armed people were supplemented by priests and deacons and bishops, assigned to carry things. He doesn’t travel with one large suitcase, he divides his necessities among four or five carry-on bags. And other variously shaped containers. The Pope himself was almost an afterthought to all this entourage. (Suddenly I”m wondering whether in the throes of all these aides, assistants, keepers, hewers of wood and drawers of water, whether His Holiness could just walk away. It might be days before anybody realized he was gone.)
Of course all this is necessary. It was already known that the Secret Service had spent days checking every single palace lining the Grand Canal, ringing the doorbells of everybody who had an apartment with a Canal-facing window and asking for names, dates, and serial numbers (so to speak).
Of course this is normal procedure, it’s just that when you think of having to accomplish that little task here, you suddenly realize how many palaces and windows there are along the wettest main street in the world. But it had to be done. No agent wants to be the one who didn’t manage to speak to little old Mrs. Tagliapietra on the fourth floor and find out too late that she let in somebody Sunday morning who claimed to want to read the gas meter.
Sunday morning was the big mass on the mainland for some 300,000 of the faithful. Then he got into his launch and headed back to Venice, and finally the big boat procession in the Grand Canal was on.
We were long since at our assigned place. We tied up the boat at about 11:45. Then we waited. (“Papal Visit” translates into the Real-Life Dialect as “Bring a book and food and a jacket and make sure they leave the light on for you.”)
Finally, at about 1:30, came the long-awaited moment. The sun was shining, the breeze had gone down somewhat, and there were more boats than I’ve seen in a corteo in quite some time. Big, important, glamorous boats. I would never presume to compare the emotion generated by the Pontifex Maximus to that generated by masses of Venetian boats, but I can tell you one thing:
It’s the only procession I’ve participated in that called to mind the emotions experienced by Venetians in centuries past at similar visitations. Because while the procession for the Festa de la Sensa is nice, and the procession for the Regata Storica is just one postcard after another, these are merely re-evocations of a remote event. This was an event in itself; it wasn’t replicating anything. I’m not sure I ever thought this was possible anymore.
My feet have their own thoughts, however, and they are not happy ones. And the shoes have been sent to the corner for a very, very long Time Out.