Venice isn’t just a city of canals: Normally, there are nice dry spots to take in the sights. But on Monday, dry patches were in short supply as a powerful storm swept winds across the Adriatic Sea and across the city.
More than three-quarters of Venice flooded during one of the highest tides the city that has lived with water for centuries has ever recorded, aided by the quickening creep of sea level rise. Ahead of that tide, water also inundated the city on Sunday during the Venice Marathon, forcing runners to slog through the sea en route to the finish line.
A powerful storm drove the city’s watery woes. Low pressure centered off northwest Italy drew in powerful winds from the south to the north. The BBC reports that on Italy’s west coast, winds cranked up to 110 mph—the equivalent of Category 2 hurricane-force. The storm’s pressure dropped to five standard deviations below normal, which is a nerdy way of saying it was a really rare event for this part of the world.
As winds rushed toward the low pressure center, they raked up the waters of the Adriatic Sea and sent them streaming into Venice. The first wave of water arrived at high tide on Sunday, turning the last few miles of the Venice Marathon into a swim. But as the storm pulled closer on Monday, it unleashed an epic flood. The tide topped out at just over five feet above sea level, making it one of the highest tides ever recorded in City of Bridges. The plank walkways that come out when the waters rise were no match for this flood. Seventy-seven percent of the city was underwater.
Waters haven’t reached these heights since 2008, and there have only been a handful of higher tides, according to records maintained by the city. Floodwaters could continue to plague the city for the next couple of days, though they aren’t likely to be as high as Monday’s flood.
It’s impossible to talk about Venice without talking about climate change, and specifically the impact of rising seas on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Venice has coexisted with the sea for hundreds of years. But carbon pollution has fueled a rapid uptick in sea levels around the world as ice melts and waters warm and expand. The local impact in Venice is clear. Since 1872, regional sea levels have risen over 11 inches (30 centimeters), giving a major bump to floods like the one that just engulfed the city.
Extreme high tides are also becoming more common. With this week’s high tide mark, the 2010s have now seen more tides higher than 47 inches (120 centimeters) than any other decade since 1870. Low tides where the water levels drop 19.7 inches (50 centimeters) below normal have all but disappeared over that time in Venice.
A similar story is playing out in other locales with less postcard-ready scenes around the world, including here in the U.S. The trend of rising seas is expected to accelerate, putting a premium on getting adaptation plans in order before the City of Canals and its waterside brethren become modern day Atlantises.