How ships damage the Lagoon: Expert opinions

On 2 June 2019, a cruise ship accident happened in Venice: MSC Opera, paralized by a motor defect just after passing Piazza San Marco, was drifting helplessly for 500 meters, past the major symbol of our city, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute. Two tug boats were able to delay the accident, pulling the 65-ton cruise vessel towards the port area where it crashed into the San Basilio embankment.

This accident sparked debates, in Venice, Veneto and Italy, and beyond. We received a number of questions from readers which we are sharing in this post.

Could Venice withstand the impact from a cruiseship?

The embankment of San Basilio was damaged, but then, this area of Dorsoduro, the former Santa Marta orchards and gardens, is built on the most solid island group of the Lagoon. Shock waves irradiate after such a heavy impact, destablizing buildings: Had this accident happened to any other fondamenta (embankment) in Venice, resting on wooden poles protected by centuries-old brickstones, damage would have been incalcolable.

Could we have lost Venice?

Had the cruiseship crashed into any other fondamenta (embankment), wide parts of Venice including landmark buildings, such as Santa Maria della Salute, built on 40,000 wooden poles, would have been destroyed.

How do cruiseships damage the Lagoon?

The invisible damage cruise ships inflict upon the Lagoon is due to fine dust emissions, fuel loss, and the deep water canals that must be continuousy maintained, enlarged and excavated. Excavation works of this dimension disturb the watershed running through Venice: The northern Lagoon consists of freshwater zones while the southern Lagoon, home to extensive fishing zones (valli da pesca) has more in common with the open sea. When salt water infiltrates fresh water pockets due to the malfunctioning of watersheds, flora and fauna are seriously impaired: The balance of the ecosystem of the Lagoon is destroyed, as Professor Luigi D’Alpaos repeats in his latest book, SOS Laguna of 19 May 2019.

Excavating and enlarging the canals also reduces the number of barene (marshlands) in the Lagoon significantly. Barene work miracles filtering out emissions and fuel losses from cruise ships and oil tankers. Since 1920, when the first deep water canals were excavated following the construction of the Marghera industrial complex, the Lagoon lost more than one third of barene, which soak up high tides and prevent the city from being flooded.

Is shifting the cruise traffic to Canale Vittorio Emanuele III a sustainable solution?

Canale Vittorio Emanuele III connects Stazione Marittima (Port of Venice) to Marghera (Industrial Zone). The area, including the islands Sacca Sessola and Poveglia, isn’t safe (sandy and shifting underground (subsidenza phenomena), seaquakes, one of which destroyed Malamocco). To allow cruise ships pass through this canal, it would have to be excavated further, impacting the watershed (see above). Si travolge l’ecosistema.

Could shifting the cruise ships to Chioggia be a long-term solution?

Chioggia is a small city in the southern Lagoon located next to the Bocca di Porto di Chioggia (inlet), dedicated to fishing and fish farming. Off its shores in the Adriatic Sea towards Sottomarina, the tegnue area begins. These are reef formations which nobody ever mentions?? Setting up port facilities + cruiseship infrastructure in this area would severely impact and pollute the fishing grounds and reef area.

What is the opinon of experts in the field of Lagoon stewardship?

Professor Luigi d’Alpaos (Università degli Studi di Padova) and his team are the foremost experts in Lagoon hydraulics and stewardship, taking up the work of Cristoforo Sabbadino, the most renowned hydraulic engineer of the Republic of Venice (1489-1650). Sabbadino was responsible for planning, co-ordinating and completing the deflection the river mouths (Brenta) and building dams (Taglio del Piave) to prevent the Lagoon turning into an uninhabitable swamp. In Trattato sulle Acque della Laguna di Venezia, Sabbadino warned against closing the bocche di porto inlets communicating with the open sea.

Professor D’Alpaos also coordinates an expert panel on Lagoon hydraulics at Istituto Veneto delle Scienze: In 2017, they published Fatti e Misfatti di Idraulica Lagunare, reaching the conclusion that Venice should follow the recommendations of the agency for Lagoon stewardship of the Republic of Venice (Magistratura alle Acque). In short: The port of Venice must be located in the same area as the ancient port facilities of the Republic of Venice, in the Adriatic Sea off the Lido island (San Nicolò).

Did the Republic of Venice (421 – 1797) allow big ships to enter the Lagoon?

No. The huge merchant cogs had to anchor outside the Lagoon, off the bocca di porto del Lido – San Nicolò. The Scanno della Pisciotta sand dune represented a barrier in a natural deep canal, connecting the port to the Arsenale of Venice.

Are there sustainabile solutions for the future of Venice?

A wider concept of urban relaunch is being implemented, but we need to recognize it as such and work on it. This is more than a trend: Venice deserves to be a living city, positioning herself as sustainable, humane and post-industrial model city in a digitalized world. The Biennale initiatives support the cultural heritage of Venice, opening up centuries-old palaces normally closed to the public, and filling them with art and inspiration.

This is Part Two of Three in my series of Venice and the Impact of Cruise ships. You can read Part One here. Part Three will be published next week and shares the Lagoon terminology required to understand the five suggestions to create a new port area for Venice.


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    1. I hope so too… there could be a referendum set to let the people decide … we’ll see and I’ll keep you posted here on the blog

  1. As a previous worker on the River Clyde, Scotland, shipping was never allowed to travel at speed as waves were known to cause erosion.
    I amazed then that even small craft and vaporetti are allowed be at full speed and cause so much wash.
    At least cruise shipping has a local pilot on board and tugs alongside and usually sail in and out slowly.

    1. Thank for your comment. I agree about the speed of the vaporetto boats, sometimes incredible! That does cause damage known in Venice as moto ondoso. But – in order to allow cruise ships into a Lagoon less than 1 meter deep, canals had to be dredged, sometimes as deep as 60 meters!! These canals destroy the natural watersheds in the Lagoon. How much water is displaced everything time such a huge ship passes by San Marco!! In this area, the embankment is made from wooden poles and bricks, built in the year1564. The tug boats couldn’t avoid the crash on 2 June but only delayed it for about 100 meters. Thus, Venice is fragile, such an accident would destroy about one third of the city, and that’s what we MUST avoid in the first place!

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