Engineering Venice & reflections on Charleston

With the recent news of Venice flooded, we revisit Mary Edna’s batik, Venice, Italy, which was the cover image of A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands (Columbia University Press, 2003), co-authored by Orrin H. Pilkey and Mary Edna Fraser. Thinking of Venice also causes reflection on our own city, Charleston, whose flooded version was a batik featured in Global Climate Change: A Primer (Duke University Press, 2011), another Fraser & Pilkey collaboration with co-authoring by Orrin’s son Keith.

Mary Edna Fraser, Venice (Italy), batik on silk, 61" x 47"

Engineering to stabilize the barrier islands enclosing the Venice lagoon has been carried out to a degree seen nowhere else around the world. Orrin Pilkey calls Venice’s barriers “perhaps the most armored islands in the world” and tells us, “The entire shoreline is walled, the inlets are jettied, and individual towns on the islands are protected from storm surge flooding by dikes.” Still, the sinking city experiences high water and flooding frequently, as seen today, in images such as those published in the Washington Post article, Venice flooding swamps 70 percent of city. Proposed solutions include raising buildings in the city or installing huge mobile gates across the inlets that would be raised when a storm threatens. The 2009 NPR report Billion-Dollar Floodgates Might Not Save Venice conveys uncertainties about gates, called the MOSE Project (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, Experimental Electromechanical Module), set to be completed in 2014.

According to Mary Edna, the inspiration for the batik on silk Venice, Italy “resulted from a journey I made in the summer of 2000 to the famous ancient city. Day trips to the surrounding barrier islands, navigational charts, and satellite images combine to make this batik. On the evenings when we were in Venice, the San Marcos plaza became a shallow lake as the high tides washed over the Grand Canal and flooded through the storm drains.”

Mary Edna lives in the coastal city of Charleston, where Venice often seems like a prototype of what might become of the historic city. Charleston’s harbor is bordered by barrier islands to the north (Sulllivan’s Island) and south (Folly Island) which offer only partial protection from hurricanes. Even heavy rains cause flooding and new pumps and improved drainage are often unable to keep up with the deluge. However, Charleston has rejected the kind of flood gates that Venice is building, in favor of piecemeal shoreline protection along developed areas, as seen in the South Carolina chapter in “The Likelihood of Shore Protection, Volume 2” (2010).

Matt Pendleton, a spatial analyst with IMSG for NOAA Coastal Services Center in Charleston, SC prepared a map which shows projected sea level rise of 4.5 feet by the year 2100 as source material for the batik on silk Charleston Airborne Flooded (pictured below). The green colored regions shows the coastal areas that would inundated by this sea level rise projection. With much of city created by filling in marshland, it is not surprising that the city still flooded along its historic tidal creeks, now paved over.

In light of the great cost of engineering protection for cities as illustrated most recently by Hurricane Sandy, Orrin asks (often in summary of a lecture) who will get the funds? Will it be Folly Beach or Manhattan? Large coastal cities as centers of commerce and dense populations will be financed first from the destruction of the rising seas. Large engineering projects seem to be the only solution to preserve our coastal cities, Venice and Charleston just two examples of many historic civilizations worldwide which face similar challenges in the months, years, and decades ahead.

Mary Edna Fraser, Charleston Airborne Flooded, batik on silk, 95.5" x 35"

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