Archive for barene
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.
I realize it may sound strange to refer to there being “plusses” to acqua alta. Let me just say I don’t mean “plusses” in the sense of winning a large chunk of the lottery. But there are in fact some positive aspects to it.
For instance, many Venetians have told me that acqua alta is a good thing because it washes the streets. This is true. Unfortunately, it also deposits a fine layer of silty slime. And while it does remove some of the dog poop, it also leaves detritus behind, so the general landscape isn’t much prettier than it was before the water rose. So, you know. We could go on like this, pro and con, all day.
But let me point out something that is hardly ever remarked on, in the many and varying accounts of this event: Acqua alta is actually a very good thing for the barene (the lagoon’s marshy wetland islets). If we can focus our minds briefly on something other than our own immediate convenience, it’s worth remembering that the lagoon has its own needs which are being met ever more rarely. So if it likes a good soak, I don’t see why it (by which I mean the whole ecosystem: microorganisms, plants, birds, etc.) can’t have it. Also — speaking selfishly — rowing when the water is high is magic.
Back in town, here are a few of the positive and less positive aspects of acqua alta, as I see them:
- It doesn’t last long. Acqua alta is a tidal event. Unlike your raging rivers, it has a predictable time frame. The tide comes in for six hours, and goes out for six hours. True, sometimes it doesn’t go out as much as it should, but it eventually does go out. This coming and going means that it’s really bothersome for only about two hours.
- It’s fairly tranquil. Inexorable, I grant you. Anyone who hasn’t watched the water rising near one’s front door (as we have) hasn’t fully grasped the fundamental meaning of “Time and tide wait for no man.” But the typical reports of high water in Venice make it sound as if Niagara Falls is pouring through your living-room window (CNN once referred to the “Adriatic bursting its banks.” Banks? Bursting? Are we suddenly in Holland?), when in reality it’s more like the bathtub slowly overflowing. Water in both cases, I agree, but not really the same.
- It is predictable. True, raging rivers are also predictable, but some of the factors influencing acqua alta, such as the direction of the wind, can change. In addition, we get plenty of warning. If you don’t want to wait for the sirens to blare, just look at the barometer. (You do have a barometer, don’t you?) The lower the pressure, the higher the water. Check the sky: Full or new moon? There will be more pronounced highs and lows. Wind from the southeast? Not good; it will prevent (or slow) the regular retreat of the tide. We want a southwest wind (garbin) or better yet, northeast (bora). Those will settle acqua alta’s hash.
I’ll tell you what’s really annoying about acqua alta, apart from the distraught articles that keep getting published. It’s not that you have to put on boots for a few hours. It’s that:
- When the tide goes out, it leaves all kinds of detritus
all over the sidewalks. Stuff that was just floating gently comes to rest on whatever pavement was just below it when the last inch retreated. Also, if anyone puts out a plastic bag of garbage the night before (yes, despite the warning sirens — dumb, I agree), that bag will be floating around the street and either settle on the pavement somewhere or drift out to sea. Neither case is highly desirable, though obviously the second is worse.
- The garbage-people will be extremely slow in collecting the trash and/or — make that just “or,” they can’t seem to do both in the same day, even when the sun is shining — sweeping away the detritus, which means the streets look more or less like a slum. The garbage-people are slow because … I’ve tried to understand this… It may be because they are already so desperately overworked that high water adds an insuperable burden (you’re believing this, yes?), and because they are otherwise urgently and industriously occupied in setting up or taking down the temporary walkways over the high water (sometimes yes, mostly no). But they seem to get a special pass on their normal work when the acqua is even moderately alta. I can’t explain it, except to compare it to the mysterious sore throat which a kid who doesn’t want to go to school suddenly develops when it rains or snows.
- Transport gets all scrambled up, not only for taxis and barges but also some vaporettos and/or motoscafos. They have to change their normal routes because the high water prevents them from passing under certain bridges. There are alternatives by which they resolve this temporary dilemma, but it adds inconvenience to your own trajectory. As for heavy work boats and taxis, they either have to pick another route from A to B, or wait for the tide to turn. Tiresome, true, but hardly the stuff of calamity.
- Your front door swells. If you have been so unfortunate as to have even an inch of water come inside (and for many people, this just means it has reached the edge of a staircase leading up to their apartment, not the apartment itself), and your front door is made of wood, it will soak up the water and then want to stick. It will take a while to dry out. Like, maybe weeks. You may end up having to sand it down some. Irritating. Not disastrous.
I think if you’re going to live here you need to accept the fact that you’re sitting in the middle of a tidal lagoon. If that creates really too many problems, it might be good for you to consider moving. At least to the second floor, or maybe across the bridge to the mainland. No more worries about the tide coming ashore over there. All you have to deal with there, even as nearby as Mestre, are rivers and rain and totally inadequate storm drains. Which leads to flooded basements full of water that actually has little or no natural urge to recede. Fun.
No emotional articles about that, though. Who cares about a foot of water in somebody’s garage? Nobody — at least not until that somebody snaps a picture of a person rowing around the car or trailer.
The big present everybody got this year was acqua alta. It seems to have been reported fairly extensively in the world at large — not that people elsewhere don’t have enough drama of their own to keep up with — but there appears to be enough inherent drama, or diversion, in the phenomenon to attract attention.
And they’re predicting more for today, New Year’s Eve, and also Day. Happily, these tides will peak at a decent hour, between 9:00 and 10:00 AM, so we can get some sleep. Thoughtful of them.
We spent most of Christmas Eve night listening, not for the reindeer hooves on the roof, but for the wind to veer around from the southeast to anywhere else it felt like going (or coming). But the forecasts (regular weather as well as high-water categories), which we consulted about every ten minutes, were implacable: There was going to be a strong scirocco (shih-RAWK-oh), and that meant that we were essentially destined to have “water on the ground,” as the Venetians call it in its more modest form.
The scirocco’s force pushes against the lagoon and prevents (or severely slows, but I’m going with prevents) the tide from going out in its normal way and even exacerbates the subsequent normal rising tide. The weather report specifies the direction and strength of the wind, but all we need to do is open the front door and listen: A strong scirocco causes heavy surf which in turn make a low, smooth roar, something like a distant jet preparing to taxi for take-off. And we can easily hear it, out there toward the left, where the Lido’s slim line of beach is doing what it can to keep the Adriatic where it belongs.
The city’s Tide Center was predicting that the maximum height, at 4:30 AM, Christmas Morning, would be 150 cm [59 inches, or almost five feet] above average sea level. I will explain the intricacies of these measurements and their meaning in the real world on another occasion, though let me just note here that Venice does not sit precisely at sea level, but at various heights above it, so these numbers are not immediately as dramatic as they sound.
As the Tide Center explains on its website, “97 percent of the city is at about 100 cm above the average sea level. This means that the amount of water that could invade the city is always well below the maximum number predicted. For example, an exceptional tide of 140 cm corresponds in reality to about 60 cm [23 inches] in the lowest points of the city (Piazza San Marco).”
I don’t know how high our domicile happens to sit above the average sea level, but we knew that at 150 cm there would be water coming over our top step and into our house. It’s just a little hovel, true, but it’s not a boat, unfortunately — not that you want water coming into your boat, either. Venice is an excellent place in which to discover the meaning of “time and tide wait for no man.” You can slow an avalanche pretty much as easily as you can slow the tide.
We knew our tidal limit because we had water in the house once before. Yes, that was one memorable moment. On December 1, 2008, we stood there at our doorstep and watched the water slip under our door — and more to the point, under the temporary barrier we had paid 400 euros for. But it wouldn’t have made any difference because only God and, perhaps, the architect has any idea what’s under our dwelling because water began to enter through a fissure in the kitchen wall, and then up from an ungrouted joint between the slabs of stone paving between the bedroom and the hallway. I can tell you that if the tide wants to come up through your floor you better just let it.
By the way, nothing was damaged, and when the tide turned about an hour and a half later, we got out our brooms and just swept it out to sea. Then I had to wash the floor with fresh water, but it needed it anyway. (I waxed it too — I was feeling like celebrating.) Then we put all the stuff that had been thrown onto the bed back under the bed, and life went on. No death, no damage, and as I say, the floor was clean. But you can’t count on high water being so relatively minor every time, and you really don’t want water, salt or otherwise, under your refrigerator and washing machine.
So at 2:00 AM on Christmas Eve (that is, Christmas morning) we got up and began preparing for the onslaught. No wailing, no hysterical vows to the Virgin; we just began to move whatever we could to higher ground (the bathroom) or on the bed. Last year, unbelieving to the last moment, we left everything where it was, which meant that Lino accomplished what ought to be an Olympic sport — the pulling-out-stuff-and-throwing-it-all-on-bed event — in mere seconds.
Then we took out candles and flashlights. I frittered away a little time sweeping and dusting, since I was going to have to do it anyway. We stared out the front door at the water. We listened.
But we were spared. Lino, whose instincts have been honed by an entire lifetime in boats in the lagoon, sensed when the reprieve was arriving — he could tell that the tide had slowed (“gotten tired,” as they put it) at about 3:30. The tide, in fact, did begin to turn then, earlier than predicted, and lower (143 cm) than predicted. The roar of the wind was diminishing. Christmas morning was beginning to look better than we’d supposed.
Turns out that this event was the fourth highest tide since the city began to record them. It also turns out — for real weather geeks — that one reason it occurred was not so much the force of the scirocco but the fact that it was constant for quite a while. In any case, nothing you can do about that; whatever the wind is doing, you just have to go along with it.
But I have to repeat what I always repeat when high tide makes the news: Nobody dies. Nothing gets especially damaged (I put in “especially” so somebody won’t say “Well what about my bookcase?”). The shopowners had to spend the night keeping vigil in their shops, which earned a few lines in the general coverage, but I say: So? We were up too and we don’t have anything we’re planning to sell. Water damage, whether it’s genuine or just labeled as such, is a great way for merchants to get rid of stock that isn’t moving anyway. I did not make that up.
Another point to consider: Whenever the news reports refer to the city being “under water,” or “flooded,” or however they term it, they never say how much of the city, nor do they say to what depth (it isn’t uniform; does one inch count as “flooded”?). Anyway, in the case of an exceptional high water, such as our Christmas Eve marvel, 56 percent of the city has water on the ground. Sound bad? Let’s do this: “44 percent of the city did not have water.” I suddenly feel better. Why don’t the newspapers ever do that? Rhetorical question.
So on to the next tide, I say, and pull out your cameras. But I think somebody should make it illegal to bring your boat into the Piazza San Marco, and doubly illegal to float around so people can snap your picture. The tide comes in, the tide goes out, all it leaves is some muddy slime
and bits of garbage tangled up in clumps of eelgrass and busted bits of reeds floating in from the barene, the marshy wetlands. This has been going on since the ocean was invented. If you really can’t stand it, go live somewhere more tranquil — say, Haiti in hurricane season, or Bangladesh when the typhoons come through. Or even certain parts of Tuscany the past few days, where some rivers have had nervous breakdowns under the unusually torrential rain. It’s just a suggestion.
So I’m going to stick with wishing everyone happy holidays. I’ll be back with more bulletins.