Venice in Boston

One of the activities in the new exhibit at the Museum of Science involves visitors taking down and putting up a flood barrier to a gelato shop with the rise and fall of floods in Venice. Photo Credit: Paige Colley

Categories: Events + Outreach

When Professor Emeritus Paola Malanotte-Rizzoli of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science (EAPS) at MIT was asked to be a consultant for a new exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science about the efforts in Venice, Italy, to mitigate flood damage, she was more than willing to offer her expertise.

“I love Venice. It is fun to tell people all of the challenges which you see the Lagoon has,…how much must be done to preserve, not only the city, but the environment, the islands and buildings,” she says.

On January 12, 2022, Malanotte-Rizzoli and fellow EAPS oceanographer, Cecil and Ida Green Professor Raffaele Ferrari, visited the museum to view the newly opened pilot exhibit, “Resilient Venice: Adapting to Climate Change”.

The installation is the second Museum of Science exhibit to be developed in recent years in consultation with EAPS scientists. In December 2020, “Arctic Adventure: Exploring with Technology” opened with the help of Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Professor Brent Minchew, who lent his expertise in geophysics and glaciology to the project. But for Malanotte-Rizzoli, the new exhibit hits a little closer to home.

The exhibit includes aerial footage of St. Mark’s Square, which was created through the use of 3D scans and images. Photo Credit: Paige Colley

“My house is there,” Malanotte-Rizzoli excitedly points out on the exhibit’s aerial view of Venice, which includes a view above St. Mark’s square and some of the surrounding city.

“Resilient Venice” focuses on Malanotte-Rizzoli’s hometown, a city known for flooding. Built on a group of islands in the Venetian Lagoon, Venice has always experienced flooding, but climate change has brought unprecedented tide levels, causing billions of dollars in damages and even causing two deaths in the flood of 2019.

The dark exhibit hall is lined with immersive images created by Iconem, a startup whose mission is digital preservation of endangered world heritage sites. The firm took detailed 3D scans and images of Venice to put together the displays and video.

The video on which Malanotte-Rizzoli pointed to her home shows the potential sea level rise by 2100 if action isn’t taken. It shows the entrance to St. Mark’s Basilica completely submerged in water; she compares it to the disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow”.

The MOSE System

Malanotte-Rizzoli and Ferrari discuss the hydraulic jump in the Musem’s working model of the MOSE system. Photo Credit: Paige Colley

Between critiques of the choice of music (“that’s not very Venice inspired,” jokes Ferrari, who is also Italian) and bits of conversation exchanged in Italian, the two scientists do what scientists do: discuss technicalities.

Ferrari points to a model of a gate system and asks Malanotte-Rizzoli if the hydraulic jump seen in the model is present in the MOSE system; she confirms it is not.

This is the part of the exhibit that Malanotte-Rizzoli was consulted on. One of the plans Venice has implemented to address the flooding is the MOSE system—short for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, or the Experimental Electromechanical Module. The MOSE is a system of flood barriers designed to protect the city from extremely high tides. Construction began in 2003, and its first successful operation happened on October 3, 2020, when it prevented a tide 53 inches above normal from flooding the city.

The barriers are made of a series of gates, each 66-98 feet in length and 66 feet wide, which sit in chambers built into the sea floor when not in use to allow boats and wildlife to travel between the ocean and lagoon. The gates are filled with water to keep them submerged; when activated, air is pumped into them, pushing out the water and allowing them to rise. The entire process takes 30 minutes to complete, and half that time to return to the sea floor.

The top of the gates in the MOSE come out of the water completely and are individually controlled so that sections can remain open to allow ships to pass through. In the model, the gate remains partially submerged, and as the high velocity water passes over it into an area of low velocity, it creates a small rise of water before it falls over the edge of the barrier, creating a hydraulic jump.

But Malanotte-Rizzoli jokes that only scientists will care about that; otherwise, the model does a good job demonstrating how the MOSE gates rise and fall.

The MOSE system is only one of many plans taken to mitigate the rising water levels in Venice and to protect the lagoon and the surrounding area, and this is an important point for Malanotte-Rizzoli, who worked on the project from 1995 to 2013.

“It is not the MOSE or,” she emphasizes. “It is the MOSE and.” Other complementary plans have been implemented to reduce harm to both economic sectors, such as shipping and tourism, as well as the wildlife that live in the lagoons.

Beyond Barriers

Another activity in the exhibit are interactive tables, seen here, that allow the user to “implement” different plans to see their effectiveness in action. Photo Credit: Paige Colley

There’s more to protecting Venice than navigating flooded streets – it’s not just “putting on rainboots,” as Malanotte-Rizzoli puts it.

“It’s destroying the walls,” she says, pointing out the corrosive effects of water on a model building, which emphasizes the damage to architecture caused by the unusually high flood levels. “People don’t think about this.” The exhibit also emphasizes the economic costs of businesses lost by having visitors take down and rebuild a flood barrier for a gelato shop with the rising and falling water levels.

Malanotte-Rizzoli gave the exhibit her seal of approval, but the Venice section is only a small portion of what the finished exhibit will look like. The current plan involves expanding it to include a few other World Heritage Sites.

“How do we make people care about a site that they haven’t been to?” Asks Julia Tate, the Project Manager of Touring Exhibits and Exhibit Production at the museum. She says that it’s easy to start with a city like Venice, since it’s a popular tourist destination. But it becomes tricker to get people to care about a site that they maybe haven’t been to, such as the Easter Islands, that are just as much at risk. The plan is to incorporate a few more sites before turning it into a traveling exhibit that will end by asking visitors to think about climate change in their own towns.

“We want them to think about solutions and how to do better,” says Tate. Hope is the alternative message: it’s not too late to act.

Malanotte-Rizzoli thinks it’s important for Bostonians to see their own city in Venice, as Boston is also at risk of sea level rise. The history of Boston reminds Malanotte-Rizzoli about her hometown and is one of the reasons why she was willing to emigrate. The history encompassed in Boston makes the need for preservation even more important.

“Those things that cannot be replaced, they must be respected in the process of preservation,” she says. “Modern things and engineering can be done even in a city which is so fragile, so delicate.”

Resilient Venice: Adapting to Climate Change” is now open at the Museum of Science, and is included with general admission.