Sunday, December 21, 2008

What is "Acqua Alta" (High Water) in Venice and is it Dangerous?

Venice in the Evening - Photo: Jonathan Ulman
(Venice, Italy) Human beings are fascinating creatures. I hear that people are actually cancelling reservations to Venice based upon the images shown all over the world regarding our Aqua Granda on December 1st. Instead of panicking, let's get educated. (That image you see is by Jonathan Ulman, and illustrates what Venice looks like most of the time.)

Acqua alta is NOT a flash flood from a river or from the sea. It is a tide. Most of us have been to the ocean or the sea. The tide goes in. It peaks. The tide goes out. During low tide, you can pick up sea shells that are otherwise hidden by the water and squish your feet into the wet sand. During high tide, if you have put your towel too close to the ocean, you must move it back a few feet or it will get wet. The tide is like the breath of the Earth. It is a natural, normal thing.

Venice has been in existence since March 25, 421, when, according to legend, she was born at 12:00 noon in Campo San Giacometto. That makes her 1,587 years old. Most of the buildings here are at least 500 years old; some much older, and they were built using very enlightened principles.

Most people have experienced Mother Nature when she gets out of sorts. I have lived through earthquakes, fire, and riots in Los Angeles, hurricanes and flooding in New Jersey and Florida, and blizzards and blackouts in New York City. I was in the middle of a tornado in Croatia, shattered glass all around. I was even hit by ball lightning in my cradle in South Carolina.

(UPDATE: At the time I wrote this in 2008, I did not know that in the future I would be swept up in yet another tornado right here in Venice on June 12, 2012, which you can read about here (spoiler alert: I survived) ->

Tornado in Venice - Eyewitness Report - Cat, You're Not in Kansas Anymore

There are natural disasters all over the world all the time; it is impossible to avoid them; we either survive them or we don't. Acqua alta is not a tidal wave. It is the most gentle and pleasant of all the acts of nature, because it arrives slowly, stays for a couple of hours, and then goes away again. Every time they dig up something around here, they find a lower street level, so the Venetians are very familiar with acqua alta. Everyone puts on their boots, as if it were snowing, and goes about their business.

Acqua alta, if we have it, arrives usually in November and December. It only happens if certain conditions combine: like a seiche, which is like a long wave that washes all the coasts of the Adriatic, and a scirocco, which is a warm wind that blows the Adriatic Sea to the Venetian Gulf. We all know that the Moon affects the tides, so often the Moon is also involved. The Comune of Venice has set up a website to explain it to you:

This is only my own personal theory, but the Full Moon this December 12th was the closest it has been to us for 15 years, since 1993. The New Moon was on November 27th. So, on December 1st, this great Moon was at the beginning of its approach toward Earth. Also, on that day, there was a three-way conjunction between the Moon, Jupiter and Venus -- here in Europe, the Moon actually eclipsed Venus on December 1st. Now, if Jupiter and Venus add their energy to the Moon, well, you are going to get a very strong Moon. Add to that the seiche and the scirocco, and, perhaps, that created the Aqua Granda. Again, that is only my theory, nothing scientific.

If you speak to people in town about what happened on December 1st, everyone will give you a different impression about that day, depending on their location. Most people experienced flooding, although some people were not affected at all. Children went to school. I live right on the Grand Canal at Rialto, and I am always affected by acqua alta because the ground level is very low and the water is right below.

Everything in Venice is back to normal, and has been for some time. Last night over at St. George's Church we had our annual Christmas gathering, and some Americans came up to me and thanked me for my reading, which was: The angel Gabriel salutes the Blessed Virgin Mary (that image is Sandro Botticelli's interpretation). They said it felt like a message had been delivered and that it made them feel at home. The church was packed, and afterwards we had hot mulled wine and mince pies.

Today in Venice it is bright and sunny, and everyone is over at the Christmas market which runs through many of the campi in town. There were Santa Clauses out in the gondolas this morning. There are Christmas cocktails and Christmas concerts and Christmas lights and Christmas parties. The only annoyance was the loud amateur "rock" band in Campo Santo Stefano, blasting music in the Christmas market -- a string quartet or a choir would have been much more pleasant and appropriate. Not that I'm against rock 'n roll -- I love it at the right place and time -- but it doesn't belong in an elegant square on the Sunday before Christmas.

Venice is a magical town, the only place like it on Earth. Educate yourselves before you come, and you will be sure to have a wonderful time.

Now, enough about aqua alta!

Ciao from Venice,

1 comment:

  1. Ciao, Cat. Good to see you are managing through it all. I hope things are really better for you now. People are pulling back on many things here. In spite of that, the traveler, Lee insisted on a trip. We went to Thailand and Cambodia. In the time frame between two political protests, leaving just before the airport closings.

    Incredible trip. Learned much, not the least was some Thai cooking. We took a class in home-cooking in Chien Mai. We also rode an elephant over hill and dale, through jungle and into mountain villages. Angkor Wat in Cambodia was incredible. Our guides were all great and put us in close touch with the people, oxen ride in villages, local ceremonies, off the beaten path places, and hidden eating spots, etc. I saw why Thailand is a favorite of American expats.

    Like you, the doings and details of each day are keeping me occupied. Too occupied. I am looking around for a monastic situation where I can confine myself to painting - which is going well, but I want to concentrate even more and completely eliminate the bourgeois tedium.

    Are you fluent in Italian now?