The Sinking of Venice

The City of Canals Is Disappearing

Gondola boats navigate one of the many canals of Venice, Italy. Getty Images

Venice, the historic Italian town known as "The Queen of the Adriatic", is on the brink of collapse, both physically and socially.  The city, which is made up of 118 small islands is sinking at an average rate of 1 to 2 millimeters per year, and its population had decreased by more than half since the mid 20th century.  

The Sinking of Venice

For the past century, the famous "Floating City" has consistently, year-after-year subsided, due to natural processes and the constant extraction of water from below ground.  Although this alarming occurrence was believed to have halted, recent studies published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), found that not only is Venice sinking again, but the city is also tilting eastward. 

This, in conjunction with the Adriatic rising in the Venetian Lagoon at approximately the same rate, has resulted in an average yearly increase of sea levels by 4mm (0.16 inches).  The study, which used a combination of GPS and satellite radar to map Venice, found that the northern part of the city is dropping at a rate of 2 to 3 millimeters (.008 to 0.12 inches), and the southern part is sinking at 3 to 4 millimeters (0.12 to 0.16 inches) per year. 

This trend is expected to continue long into the future as natural tectonic processes are slowly pushing the city's foundation under Italy's Apennine Mountains.  Within the next two decades, Venice could subside as much as 80mms (3.2 inches).  

To the locals, floods are commonplace in Venice.  Approximately four to five times a year, residents have to walk on wooden planks in order to stay above the floodwaters in large open areas such as Piazza San Marco

To constrain these floods, a new multi-billion euro system of barriers is being constructed.  Titled the MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) Project, this integrated system consists of rows of mobiles gates installed at three of the city's inlets that are able to temporarily isolate the Venetian Lagoon from rising tides.  It is designed to protect Venice from tides as high as almost 10 feet.  Local researchers are also currently working on a system aimed at potentially uplifting Venice by pumping seawater into the city's subsoil.  

Population Decline of Venice

In the 1500's, Venice was one of the most populated cities in the world.  After World War II, the city housed over 175,000 residents.  Today, native Venetians only number in the mid-50,000's.  This massive exodus is rooted in high property taxes, high cost of living, aging population, and overwhelming tourism.  

Geographic isolation is a major problem for Venice.  With no cars, everything must be brought in and out (garbage) by boat.  Groceries are a third more costly than in the landlocked suburbs nearby.  In addition, the cost of property have tripled from a decade ago and many Venetians have relocated to nearby towns in the mainland likes Mestre, Treviso, or Padova, where homes, food, and utilities cost a quarter of what they do in Venice. 

Moreover, due the nature of the city, with its high humidity and rising waters, homes require constant maintenance and improvements.  The dramatic inflation in housing prices in the City of Canals is stimulated by wealthy foreigners, who are buying up property to satisfying the idealized romance they have with Venetian living. 

Now, the only people who occupy homes here are the rich or elderly who inherited property.  The young are leaving.  Quickly.  Today, 25% of the population is over the age of 64.  The latest council estimate is that the rate of decline will increase to as much as 2,500 a year.  This decline, of course will be offset by incoming foreigners, but for native Venetians, they are quickly becoming an endangered species.  

Tourism Is Ruining Venice

Tourism also contributes to the massive increase in cost of living and the population exodus.  Taxes are high because Venice requires an enormous amount of maintenance, from the cleaning of canals to the restoration of buildings, disposal of waste, and the raising of foundation. 

A 1999 law that eased regulations on the conversion of residential buildings to tourist accommodations also exacerbated the ongoing housing shortage.  Since then, the number of hotels and guesthouses has increased by more than 600 percent. 

For the locals, living in Venice has become quite a cluster.  It is nearly impossible now to get from one part of town to another without encountering hordes of tourists.  Over 20 million people flock to Venice each year, with an average of 55,000-60,000 visitors per day.  To make matters worse, these figures are expected to increase further as travelers with disposable incomes from burgeoning economies like China, India, and Brazil are starting to navigate their way here.  

Increased regulations on tourism will unlikely happen in the foreseeable future since the industry generates over €2 billion a year, not including the informal economy.  The cruise ship industry alone brings in an estimated €150 million annually from its 2 million passengers.  Together with the cruise lines themselves purchasing supplies from local contractors, they represent 20 percent of the city's economy. 

In the last 15 years, cruise ship traffic to the Venice has increased 440 percent, from 200 ships in 1997 to over 655 today.  Unfortunately, as more ships arrive, more Venetians are leaving, as critics claim they churn up mud and silt, emit air pollution, degrade local structures, and are converting the entire economy into a tourism-based industry, with no other forms of employment available.  

At its current rate of population decline, by the mid-21st century, there will be no more native Venetians left in Venice.  The city, which once ruled an empire, will essentially become an amusement park.