Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Like Stalingrad: Italy's Concrete Infrastructure is Melting in the Rain

The region of Liguria, within the red circle, is a narrow strip of land stuck between the Appennini Mountains and the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is also a critical element of the transportation system that connects France and the Po valley to the rest of Italy. As you may imagine, this heavily urbanized region is subjected to disastrous floods. The situation became so bad, recently, that the president of the Liguria region declared it was like the siege of Stalingrad, during WWII. The image above is from a presentation by Massimo Lanfranco, highly recommended!

When you have a fame of being a catastrophist or a Cassandra, reading that some of your prophecies turned out to be true may be a little unsettling. But it seems that I understood something correctly with the chapter of my recent book "Before the Collapse," where I described how the world's concrete infrastructure was getting old and decaying and how the situation was going to get worse with time.

In my take of the situation, I was inspired by the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genova, Italy, in 2018, but I was sure that worse things were going to happen. And it seems that I was right: the recent disasters in Southern Europe (France, Greece, and Italy) show how roads, railways, and buildings, are fragile, often on the edge of collapse. Rains heavier than usual are sufficient to create disasters, in part because of landslides and floods, in part because of the aged and weakened concrete structures. And, with climate change pressing forward, heavy rains are going to be more and more common.

In Italy, the situation is especially bad in Liguria, the crescent-shaped region that lies South of the Appennini mountains in North-Western Italy. It is a crucial region for the Italian economy: its ports are the gateway to the industrial areas of the Po valley, on the other side of the mountains. Roads and railroads connecting Italy to Southern France go through the narrow strip between the mountains and the sea in Liguria, an area that was heavily urbanized and impermeabilized. Today, it is prone to floods and to all the associated disasters. Almost every year, something horrible happens there -- the collapse of the Morandi bridge was just one case among many. Below, you can see the most recent case of a highway bridge having collapsed. It happened on Nov 24th, fortunately there were no victims (image from Vigili del Fuoco)

That the situation is dramatic starts being perceived. Here is what the President of the Liguria Region, Giovanni Toti, said after the latest bridge collapse.

Siamo in guerra. Siamo a Stalingrado ... La Liguria oggi è isolata come prima degli anni Trenta. Ogni minuto di chiusura sarà un danno incalcolabile per la città, la regione e l’economia del Nord Ovest. .. È come se fossimo in tempo di guerra. Non possiamo reggere oltre la settimana. Il Governo si deve fare carico di tutto ciò che serve. 
We are at war, we are at Stalingrad... Liguria is today isolated as it was in the 1930s... Every minute of closure of the highway is an incalculable damage for the city, the region, for the North-Western economy. It is like wartime. We can't hold more than a week. The Government must intervene with all that's needed. 
Maybe a little exaggerated, but not so much. Our whole civilization is built on concrete structures that may turn to be no more resilient than a sandcastle built on the beach at low tide. And those of us who are Cassandras had noted that before the emergency but, as usual, we were not heard. Here is a snapshot of the first page of the relevant chapter from my book "Before the Collapse"


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)