Management of the coastal development of Venice lagoon

Over the coming months we will also feature posts relating to the research we do in the coastal zone. Below is an outline of work Prof. Carl Amos has been leading.

Introduction

Scientists and engineers have fought to save the beautiful World Heritage site of Venice from flooding since the 10th century. Now, with 22 million tourists visiting the city every year and the threat of sea levels rising with climate change, the problem of habitat destruction in the lagoon is more acute than ever.

University of Southampton researchers are working with Italian colleagues and international partners to protect the lagoon from environmental damage and preserve habitats so visitors can continue to discover and appreciate this unique eco-system. Controlling bed levels in the lagoon also ensures the survival of the local fishing industry and preserves jobs for thousands of local people.

Research challenge

Venice has suffered from flooding for centuries. For many years, engineers sought to manage the problem by concentrating on controlling the flow of rivers running into the marshy lagoon. By contrast, Southampton researchers and their associates have highlighted the major significance of increasing amounts of material entering the lagoon through the inlets.

The University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre has been involved in research into ways to safeguard Venice since 1999. Professor Carl Amos’ work started with the European Union’s Feedbacks of Estuarine Circulation and Transport of Sediments (F-ECTS) project to examine sea bed stability in the lagoon. This work has continued, through further research grants, to the present day.

A key part of the ongoing research is an examination of the impact of sediment build-up on the €8bn Venetian Storm Gate scheme, MOSE, which began in 2004 and is scheduled to be completed in 2014. It aims to construct a series of giant, submerged gates that can be raised to prevent the sea entering Venice Lagoon and flooding the city. Effects of future plans to extend dredging to allow larger cruise ships to visit Venice are also being considered. These vessels could bring an extra 15,000 people a year to the World Heritage site. The work being undertaken by Southampton will provide valuable information to assess and mitigate human impacts.

Context

Venice is an iconic city and a must-see destination for travellers from around the world. Currently, 22 million tourists visit each year, bringing millions of euros to the regional economy but increasing pressure on its infrastructure.

As a great deal of the city’s charm results from its location on its magnificent lagoon, conservation work to preserve habitats and control sea levels must be carried out sympathetically and sustainably.

Policymakers in Venice need accurate, scientific information about current and future threats to the World Heritage site and its lagoon to plan effectively.

Our solution

Southampton academics brought together field surveys, laboratory simulations and a software package (Sedtrans) to develop a new computer modelling system to predict the effects of sedimentation with Venetian partners (ISMAR). The new model (Shyfem) is being used to assess the risk of siltation posed by the new storm gates and future dredging work in the city as well as the lagoon. It has also helped secure the viability of clam fisheries, which support 200 fishing boats at the nearby city of Chioggia.

Shyfem has been improved and developed for direct application to Venice over the last 15 years. It has been used to manage the dredging of Venetian canals including the famous Grande Canal, to evaluate the risks of the storm gate project, and to estimate the local impact of climate change on seawater temperature. Sedtrans is still available online and is frequently downloaded for research and commercial purposes around the world.

Professor Carl Amos believes temperature changes in the lagoon, especially in winter, may be influenced by the urban impact of many millions of tourists each year. His work on heat islands resulting from this “thermal pollution” are now informing studies on the potential for fish kills in the lagoon when the storm gates are closed.

Our impact

Innovative solutions to Venice’s flooding problem, developed at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, have given engineers in Italy new insights into predicting and reducing erosion of habitat in Venice lagoon. The computer modelling system which Southampton has contributed to, enables Venetians to carry out long-term planning to preserve this much-loved World Heritage site and protect the thousands of jobs in tourism and the fishing industry in the region, which depend on the continued prosperity of Venice and the health of its lagoon.

The sophisticated techniques, tools and models developed during this project are also being increasingly applied around the globe, particularly in the Arabian Gulf.

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