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nov 16

Venice's Water Problem

A romantic scene in Venice, Italy

As sea levels rise worldwide, how can Venice—a city built on islands in a lagoon—survive?

(Courtesy Littlebritches/myBudgetTravel)

I've had a recurring dream ever since I was a little boy: I'm surrounded by steadily rising water in an unexpected location, like a house, restaurant, or public square. When I was a kid, the dream terrified me; these days my unconscious mind just says, "Oh, this again" and moves on.

So you might guess that the images from Venice last week pushed some buttons for me: Due to heavy rain and a rising tide from the Adriatic, the water in the city's iconic St. Mark's Square was several feet high (the flood's peak was five feet), and some tourists even donned bathing suits and went for a swim in it. For me, the high water was a little nightmarish: Sure, in a city of canals we expect to see water just about everywhere, but that big, beautiful square that I associate with bustling cafes and the dueling sounds of jazz bands and church bells looked more like a murky pond, and of course reminded me of my still-recovering native New York metro area and its recent flood damage.

As the flood waters recede in northern and central Italy, where bridges were destroyed and damage is still being assessed, fans of the city are once again left asking how Venice—a set of islands in a lagoon, with many building resting on wood pilings built hundreds of years ago—can possibly survive. Climate-change research suggests that the world's oceans could rise another two feet my mid-century. Considering that in the past 50 years Venice has seen devastating flooding (the worst was in November 1966, when high tide, a sea storm, and sirocco winds combined to cover the city in high water), what does the future hold?

The good news is that the Mose system, under construction since 2003, is expected to debut in 2015. Bearing the Italian word for Moses, the system is designed to "part the waters" via movable floodgates that will rise from the floor of the sea at three lagoon inlets (Lido, Malamocco, and Chioggia) when needed to protect the city from dangerously high tides and storm surges of up to 9.8 feet.

If you've got a trip to Venice in the works, you can check on water conditions and hotel locations on the city's official website, much of which is available in English. And remember that it's best to resist the urge to dive into flood waters—bring a pair of boots, but leave the bathing suit at home.

Talk to us! Did the images of tourists swimming in St. Mark's Square delight or appall you? Will Venice stay near the top of your can't-live-without list despite its water problem?

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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