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Keeping Venice Afloat

At day's end, the sunset in Venice, Italy, is beautiful to watch. The Grand Canal, the city's watery superhighway, shimmers in a haze of orange and yellow as it reflects the sky.

Shadows creep over St. Mark's Basilica, silhouetting the church's five domes against the sky. Couples hold hands while strolling along the church's square, enjoying postcard views across the sparkling lagoon, or shallow body of water, in the middle of the city.

More than 12 million tourists from around the world come to Venice each year to experience such magic. Yet Venice, Italy's floating city, is sinking slowly into the sea. Many people have abandoned Venice since the problem reached a critical stage.

Sinking Feeling

For centuries, flooding has been a problem for those living in Venice, a city built on a series of islands located on the Adriatic Sea. In recent years, however, the problem has worsened. During extremely high tides, water from the Adriatic Sea spills over seawalls and swamps the city. Last year, Venice flooded 108 times.

The high water used to flood Venice only twice a year, in the fall and winter. Now, because of several factors, flooding can occur at any time.

Scientists say Venice sank about five inches between 1950 and 1970. That is because engineers pumped water from deep under the city for use in factories on Italy's mainland. The sandy soil beneath Venice could no longer support the city's weight.

In addition, Venice began feeling the effects of global warming. Some scientists believe Earth is becoming warmer as heat-trapping gases are released into the atmosphere by automobiles and factories.

The increase in Earth's temperatures is slowly melting glaciers and polar ice caps, raising sea levels around the world. That has caused many coastal areas, including Venice, to flood. The seas around Venice have risen four inches in 30 years, scientists say.

Going with the Flow

The flooding is causing major problems. When the water begins to rise, a siren blares to warn Venetians of the approaching flood. One hundred city workers jump into action, installing 10 miles of wooden walkways in low areas.

Merchants hurry to place items on higher shelves. Hotel operators roll up valuable carpets before the rugs are soaked. Cafe owners move tables and chairs to higher floors before the tide rolls in.

The high water often causes the cancellation of school and events. The flooding also keeps people from getting to their jobs, and drives tourists indoors—or away.

Holding Back the Tide

What are Italians doing to stop Venice from drowning in all that water? Plans are being floated to construct a high-tech $4 billion project called MOSE.

The proposed project is named after Moses (Mosè in Italian), the biblical figure who called upon God to part the Red Sea.

The design of MOSE includes a system of 79 hollow steel panels, each weighing 300 tons. The panels would lie flat on the lagoon floor during normal weather. During dangerously high tides, operaters would pump air into the panels. The panels would then swing up to the surface on giant hinges and form a barrier to stop the tidal flow from entering the lagoon, keeping Venice high and dry.

Although some people oppose the MOSE project, everyone agrees that if Venice does nothing about the problem, the great city will be in serious danger.