Rising Waters: Can a Massive Barrier Save Venice from Drowning? - Yale E
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Your subscription will end shortly. Mobile barriers are to sea level rise as condoms are to sex: a device you use to protect yourself in a heated moment. Unlike an actual wall or dike, a mobile barrier like MOSE is designed to be deployed only when necessary to protect the city from a surge. And yet, if a big storm is coming, it can be raised in 30 minutes, creating a temporary wall against the sea.
In reality, the project has been delayed, tangled in a high-profile corruption scandal, and victim to engineering problems that have led many thoughtful observers to wonder if it will ever work. Earlier this year, I visited the CVN offices in the Venice arsenal, a restored medieval boatyard with beautiful arched colonnades. Over an espresso, she explained the current state of construction: So far, gates had been installed in only one of the three lagoon inlets.
I asked her if she could take me out to see the installation, but she shook her head.
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It is all underwater now. One piece of the MOSE system. Assembled in a line, the barriers rise and fall as water levels change, keeping storm surges and peak high tides from reaching Venice.
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Consorzio Venezia Nuova. Ambrosini was eager to show off progress on MOSE in part because the organization has taken a lot of fire in recent years for wild cost overruns, as well as a corruption scandal that left many Venetians wondering how much money went into the design and construction of the barrier and how much went into the design and construction of vacation homes for the politicians and industry executives who were involved with the project. In June , officers raided offices from Venice to Tuscany and Rome as part of a probe into the alleged rigging of contracts.
More than 35 people were arrested, including politicians and business executives who were accused of bribery and other forms of corruption. The investigation eventually led to the indictment of the mayor of Venice, as well as the governor of the Veneto region. With that, we put on our hard hats and orange safety vests and headed out through the backwoods of the arsenal. Workers scurried around; a forklift carrying concrete pipes rolled by. Ambrosini led me toward a chain-link fence, behind which were two enormous slabs of metal.
They looked like foot-long, foot-wide teeth extracted from a creature on planet Gargantua. One was painted bright yellow, the other aqua. Ambrosini pointed to the aqua one. The mobile barrier at the central inlet would be made up of 21 of these gates, each hinged to the ocean floor and working together.
That was when the scale and ambition of this project became clear to me. These gates were designed to do nothing less than hold back the sea, one of the primal forces of nature.
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That humans could even contemplate building such a tool was evidence either of the power of technological innovation or of the folly of human hubris — or both. I asked Ambrosini when she estimated that the entire MOSE barrier would be installed and ready to defend the city. Frequent saltwater flooding is damaging Venice's structures, such as this building where plaster has eroded.
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The first is the time required to design and build the barrier. After the flood, it took more than 50 years to settle on a plan to protect the city, then get it approved, funded, designed, and partially built. That kind of time scale might not be important if you are building, say, a new bridge. In , sea level rise was something that only a few scientists thought about. Yet even though the design for MOSE was not finalized until , the estimates for sea level rise then used are now woefully out of date.
According to a UNESCO report, during the project planning phase, three sea level rise scenarios for were considered. Planners recommended using the prudent scenario for design purposes. The second issue is cost. There is also the question of maintenance. This money is like a ransom that has to be paid every year — if maintenance lags and the gates fail, Venice could be inundated.
The most important question, of course, is whether the barrier will actually protect the city — and if so, for how long. But because the gates will only rise when the tide in the lagoon reaches centimeters, they will not stop the flooding that already happens in low spots in Venice such as Piazza San Marco when the tide gets above 80 centimeters or so. This could be solved by raising the barrier at lower tides, but that would have a big impact on the health of the lagoon, and would also increase operational wear and tear on the barrier, which would raise maintenance costs.
In the longer run, questions about the protection of the barrier depend, like much else in this world, on how far and how fast sea levels rise during the year design-life of the barrier.