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N e w s Fo c u s

Like New Orleans,Venice is slowly subsiding. Several decades and $10 billion of research have not settled the debate over what to do about the “Venice problem,” but studies of the city’s famed lagoon are providing insights for other coastal cities on pollution and climate change

A Sinking City Yields Some Secrets
VENICE, ITALY—With a few expert motions of ent protectivemeasures and others pre- physical, biological, and urban processes his oar, Fabio Carrera sends the long batèla dicting that the coming decades of sea- interact in a marine setting. If Italy’s Ministry of Education, Univerboat gliding around a corner in this maze of level rise will render the gates obsolete sities, and Research has its way, Venice canals. Suddenly, a dim patch of stars is the (seesidebar, p. 1979). But there’s good news as well. The will soon receive 1.5%—$60 million—of only light and the gentle swish of water the only sound. The experience evokes a “Venice problem” has made the city a hot the $5 billion allocated for the tidal gates. City officials hope that the fivecenturies-old past, when Venice fold increase in national funding was one of the most powerful for basicscience institutions city-states in the Western world. will attract young people by But times have changed. One creating more academic and clue is the outboard motors prohigh-tech jobs in a city whose truding from beneath the tarps of population is rapidly shrinking. moored boats. Another comes in But whether science can revitalthe approach to the tunnel ize the city or save it from the beneath SantoStefano Church. encroaching sea remains an Although it is low tide, Caropen question. rera has to stoop to clear the moist stone ceiling. “At high At the battlefront of climate tide, this passage is completely change inaccessible,” says Carrera, an Zipping across the chalky urban information scientist and green water in a motorboat, native Venetian who now divides Campostrini points out a histime between Worcester 16th century stone fortress with Polytechnic Institute in Massawindows half-submerged. “It’s chusetts and his watery homenot enough to estimate sea level town. Elsewhere in the city, the as a global average,” he says. acqua alta overflows the streets, Determining a particular city’s fills the ground floors of buildrisk—and what to do about it— ings, and nibbles away at bricksrequires an understanding of how and plaster. New Orleans isn’t the only Complex interactions. A computer model, overlaid on a satellite image, climate change plays out locally. coastal city threatened by en- divides the Venice Lagoon into thousands of interacting triangles to enable Even so, Venice is a “microcosm of the larger changes” taking croaching waters. Little by little study of itsprocesses, such as water flow and sediment transport. place, says Trevor Davies, an each year, Venice is being swallowed by the sea. Although this has been a spot for scientific research, and there’s no atmospheric scientist at the University of problem since the Middle Ages, an accel- shortage of questions to tackle. “Every time East Anglia in Norwich, U.K. For instance, Venice’s record of sea-levelerating rise in sea levels linked to global we focus on one aspect of the practical warming has turned the sporadic flooding problem, we discover another gap in our change is now the most comprehensive in from a nuisance into a looming catastro- knowledge,” says Pierpaolo Campostrini, the world. Modern records of watermarks go phe. Crisis already hit once, in 1966, when an electrical engineer whodirects back to the late 19th century, and researchers most of the city’s streets were submerged CORILA, the organization that orchestrates are finding ways to push the data farther under a meter of water. After 3 decades of Venice’s scientific activities. Venice is pro- back in time. A Venetian tradition of paintdebate, construction has now begun on a viding other coastal cities with insights on...
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