Venice’s Acqua Alta: A Survival Guide

St. Mark’s Square during acqua alta! Photo by Gwenael Piaser from Flickr.

The acqua alta of Venice recently reached such heights (…or depths), it was all over the news. More than 70 percent of Venice was under water. Last weekend, in fact, the acqua alta got up to 149 cm (4 ft 10 inches), the 5th-highest level the floods have reached in the past 150 years. (See some extraordinary photos of the acqua alta here!).

The pictures are stunning: People swimming through St. Mark’s Square, merchandise floating in shops, locals paddling to work. But what is it really like to visit—or live in—Venice when there’s acqua alta? Here’s a survival guide!

What is acqua alta?

Woman walking in Venice’s acqua alta; photo from ParisSharing on Flickr

Acqua alta literally means “high water”—and that’s what it is! Because of Venice’s unique position as an island criss-crossed with canals, the city is, of course, very sensitive to water levels. So whenever water levels rise in the Venetian lagoon… the island of Venice is at an increased chance of flooding.

Acqua alta usually happens in the winter, thanks to a combination of the tides, a strong south wind, and the periodic movement of sea waters. But it’s been happening more often—and been getting worse—in recent decades, thanks to Venice’s sensitivity to climate change.

Earlier this year, in fact, it was discovered that the island was sinking five times faster than previously thought, at a rate of 2 millimeters per year. While that might not sound like much, it adds up: The Rialto Bridge, for example, has sunk 1.7 meters (5 feet) since it was first built!

Venice is sinking partly because, thanks to climate change and the melting of the glaciers, water levels are rising worldwide at a rate of 0.14 inches per year. And it’s partly because of issues particular to Venice itself, like the industrialization of adjacent Mastre-Marghera and the increase of pumping water and natural gas from the ground.

How often does acqua alta occur?

Statistically, exceptional high tides—when the water level of the lagoon is 140 cm or more above the standard sea level, the point at which more than half of the island of Venice is flooded—only happen once every four years. But more minor flooding occurs much more often: Water reaching 110 cm, at which point flooding covers 14 percent of Venice, happens about four times a year.

In general, if you’re coming during the winter, particularly November or December, be prepared for the possibility of acqua alta!

Here’s a good video tour of what to expect when it gets really bad:

How long does acqua alta last?

It generally lasts for only a few hours—but not always! It depends on the neighborhood and how hard it was hit.

How do I know when acqua alta is going to hit Venice?

Those who live in Venice are notified by the city by phone or SMS. But if acqua alta is estimated to be particularly bad, everyone gets notified, thanks to a system of sirens that sound throughout the island! Keep your ears open for any whistles… the more there are, the worse it’s going to be. You can also check online at Venice’s acqua alta forecast website.

And, of course, you can always ask your hotel what the likelihood is that acqua alta is coming—you can bet that they’ll know!

How do I get around when Venice is flooded?

Navigating Venice by passarelle; photo by Gwenael Piaser from Flickr

Remember that, in all likelihood, half, or more, of the island will be dry. That said, the area around St. Mark’s Square is the lowest on the island… and therefore the first to get flooded! So if you must pass through the flooded areas (or you simply want to see what it looks like), use the passarelle, which are walkways elevated above the water. (Please, walk on the right-hand side to avoid being an obstacle to locals!).

You’ll probably get a little wet regardless–the passarelle don’t always connect at every point—but it’ll keep you out of the worst of it.

Do I pack my rain boots?

A stall selling rain boots during acqua alta! Photo by Julie Macnam on Flickr.

Not necessarily! Again, remember that, even in the terrible flooding there was last week, almost half of the island was still dry. So many people prefer to wait out the acqua alta at their hotel or in a drier part of town. Otherwise, of course, rain boots can come in handy… but they do take up lots of suitcase space, so you might consider buying them when you get to Venice instead, if you discover they’re necessary. Some hotels are even kind enough to loan rubber boots to guests.

Forget staying dry—this seems like a fun opportunity to swim in St. Mark’s Square and take some great photos! Is it?

No. And it could be unsafe. First of all, remember that the water is going to be very cold. Secondly, it’s very dirty—something you’ll probably notice as soon as you see it, since it often comes with garbage and other debris floating (remember, this is water that’s swept through not only Venice’s piazzas, but its garbage cans, stores, and more!). Full of bacteria, it’s probably not something you want to submerge your body in! And no, the smell often isn’t great.

Be safe, and don’t go barefoot in the flooded areas (or anywhere else, for that matter!).

What happens to transportation and sights?

In many ways, Venice trundles on as usual during acqua alta. But some things are hindered. Boats run, but might have to change their routes, because they may not be able to pass under some bridges. And some stores, restaurants, and sights might be forced to close temporarily.

What does acqua alta mean for how much I should pack?

Strange question? Not really! Many people don’t think about what they’ll do if they get to their hotel… and the walk there is flooded. The option to wheel your suitcase vanishes—unless you want to get it soaked. So you need to be strong enough to carry it above your head. Something to keep in mind if you’re visiting Venice in the high-risk months!

During acqua alta, it’s not always that easy to tell where land stops and the canal begins! Photo by Susan Poupard on Flickr.

Any other tips?

Yes—be careful if you’re walking on flooded sidewalks next to canals! Because of the flooding, it’s often harder to see the edge between the land and the canal. Watch your step if you want to avoid getting really soaked!

This all sounds pretty serious. And you say it’s going to get worse? What are people doing about it?

Great question! One major project to try to protect Venice—and its delicate monuments, churches, and palaces—from future flooding is MOSE, which consists of ros of mobile gates that would cut off the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic during high tides. It’s a 5 billion euro project, so it’s safe to say that everyone is pretty hopeful it will actually work! It’s slated to finish in 2014.

On the other hand, critics say that the project didn’t take into consideration how much the sea levels are slated to rise, and that it would be ineffective… a pretty scary prospect.

What can I do to help?

Although it is, in many ways, a part of normal Venetian life, acqua alta is also devastating… and the forecast for the sinking city isn’t looking good.

So, if you love Venice (or simply want it to be around for your grandchildren to visit!), consider helping by supporting Venice in Peril. The Fund is dedicated to raising awareness of Venice’s fragility and to funding conservation and restoration projects in Venice; as of 2010, it had completed 46 different projects, including on the Doge’s Palace.

You can donate to Venice in Peril here, buy this year’s Christmas cards (all proceeds go to Venice in Peril), or become a member, giving you access to events, lectures, galas, and more.

And don’t miss our video on what it’s like to be a local and live on Venice’s canals (acqua alta included), below!

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7 Responses to Venice’s Acqua Alta: A Survival Guide

  1. Penny Sadler November 18, 2012 at 12:15 am #

    Thanks for this article. Very helpful. I’ve been following the situation very closely as I’ve always wanted to go to Venice in the fall/winter. Nice to know about Venice in Peril.

  2. Rachel November 19, 2012 at 8:19 am #

    I do hope that Venice be saved from sinking, it’s one of my favorite cities, but considering that this project could cause a lot of damage to the environment, plus its maintenance could cause their government big time (yeah I’m concerned about that too), and to think that it could only be a temporary solution. I think they should also consider the other alternatives being suggested. Plus, I kinda like the flooded areas, don’t hate me for saying, I’m just being a tourist. :P

  3. Julie McNamee November 24, 2012 at 12:02 am #

    There’s an argument about the flood protection system that preventing a lot of tides will make the water stagnant: it’ll be interesting to see what happens. It’s a wonderful city anyway. We were there during the highest flooding in November 2012 and it certainly wouldn’t stop us going back (guy buying welly boots is my husband – the blog post about the trip is at http://www.quirkytravel.com/cities/acqua-alta-venice/dontfollow )

  4. alanmetok September 3, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    Wow, didn’t realise it could get that bad! We were very lucky with our trip!

    We made a video of our trip if you’re interested!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQvSNgidFB8

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