There are capitals unlikely to be much afflicted by rising sea levels — Indianapolis, say, or La Paz — but Venice looks set for a much more dire fate. Still, there is hope for the Floating City, a hope held out by large-scale engineering projects like the one profiled in the Tomorrow’s Build video above. Called MOSE (an acronym standing for MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), the system consists of “78 gates, each 20 meters wide, that rise up out of the water when flooding is imminent.” This sounds like just the ticket for a city that, “built in the middle of a lagoon,” has “been susceptible to a natural phenomenon known as acqua alta, or ‘high water,’ since its founding in the fifth century.”
MOSE is now “finally up and running, eighteen years after construction began” — and a decade after its original completion deadline. This was too late, unfortunately, to spare Venice from the 2019 flood that ranked as its worst in 50 years, leaving 80 percent of the city underwater.
“The good news is, it passed the first major test,” successfully protecting the city in October of last year “from a 1.3-meter high tide, and it’s performed multiple times since. But this doesn’t mean that flooding’s been stopped entirely. In December, it was unable to prevent an unexpectedly high tide from sweeping in and drenching the city once again.” Technically, that incident wasn’t MOSE’s fault: “Weather forecasters underestimated how high the water would get, so authorities kind of didn’t think to switch it on.”
This speaks to the difficulty of not just designing and installing a complex mechanical defense mechanism, but also of getting it to work in concert with the other systems already performing functions of their own (and at various levels of reliability). At a cost of over €6 billion (or $7 billion), MOSE has become “far more expensive than first predicted,” and thus faces that much higher a burden of self-justification, especially given the cloud of “corruption, environmental opposition, and questions about its long-term effectiveness” hanging over it. Seen in action, MOSE remains an unquestionably impressive work of engineering, but its associated headaches have surely converted some to the position on Venice once advanced by no less a scholar and lover of that storied city than Jan Morris: “Let her sink.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.