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Venice sinking five times faster than thought?

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

Gondoliers row gondolas with tourists in a canal in Venice in this May 7, 2011 file photo.

 

ROME -- Venice appears to have more nicknames than street names. It’s known as the "Queen of the Adriatic," the "City of Water," "City of Masks," "City of Bridges," "The Floating City," and "City of Canals."

But is Venice destined to become "The Divers' Paradise" much faster than we thought? New research by U.S. scientists suggests it is sinking more than five times faster than experts in Venice believe.


Saying that the city is sinking is just about as obvious as saying that the wind will always blow in Chicago. It’s just a thing of nature. And there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it.  

While Venetians and tourists know that Venice's appeal is due to its undeniable beauty, with its Gothic and Byzantine palazzos appearing to float on the canals and lagoon, much of the city's allure comes from the fact that it appears to be disappearing.

So you don’t need a scientist to tell you that Venice is sinking. In fact, sometimes they tell you otherwise. Back in the 1980s Venetians rejoiced at the news that the city had finally stabilized.  But, to use an Italian sailor’s jargon, that theory “loses water from all sides.”

It’s quite obvious to the naked eye (or rather, to the naked ankle when it floods) that parts of Venice are flooding more and more often. To tourists, walking in a flooded St. Mark’s Square might be a unique photo opportunity, but to Venetians it’s a sign of things to come. 

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So Venice is sinking. But the question remains -- how long will it take before it turns from floating jewel to a playground for divers?

The answer comes from a new research by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, expected to be published on Wednesday: Venice is still sinking, and sinking at a rate of up to two millimeters per year (0.08 inches).  

City heading out to sea
There’s more. Not only is the city being reclaimed by the waters that made it famous, it now looks like it’s actually heading out to sea, as if the glorious capital of the former Maritime Venetian Republic is tired of being a tourist attraction and wants to die in the Adriatic.

According to measurements taken over 10 years, Venice is also tilting a bit, about a millimeter or two eastward per year. While this doesn’t mean that you should buy a ticket right away in order to see Venice before it disappears, it raises concern that not enough is being done to save it.   

A complex system of moving dams around Venice that took decades and millions of dollars to build is nearing completion. The new research could well call into question whether these major works will actually be enough to save the “Floating City.”

One of the biggest experts on the state of Venice, Luigi Tosi, of Italy's National Research Center, pointed out that Venice's "sinking" was actually a combination of land subsidence and sea level rise.

He said the Scripps researchers' results "tell us nothing new." "We have published a paper back in 1992 that arrived to the same conclusions," he said.

But experts at Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the group in charge of safeguarding Venice and the lagoon, told NBC News they had a lot of questions about the Scripps report, saying they thought the city was sinking much more slowly.

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“I learned about the new research from journalists like yourself,” said an official who asked not to be named. “We have records of the subsiding of Venice for hundreds of years, and yet they haven’t called us."

But one thing is clear to the official -- 10 years of measurements might sound a lot to most people, but on Venice’s standards it’s the blink of an eye.

"We have calculated that the city has been sinking three to four centimeters (about 1.5 inches) per century," the official said.

That's not to say the people at Consorzio Venezia Nuova aren't paying attention, however.

"Now they say two millimeters per year…that means Venice would sink 20 centimeters (7.8 inches) every 100 years. That’s more than five times more than we calculated. So I’ll believe it when I see it," he said. 

It’s unclear whether the Scripps Institute team will contact the Consorzio before the research is published on Wednesday.  But one way or another their difference will have to be reconciled … and it will be, once again, just water under the bridge.

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