The climate crisis has hit the Smithsonian Museum and it will get worse

This week I have a lot of topics in the hopper: COP-26, the new COVID variant (Omicron), an update on an educational game I’ve been developing.  But for now I want to share a single story about a far larger topic.  And I’ll share it in some detail, because not every reader can climb past the paywall surrounding it.

tl;dr version – The climate crisis is already hitting America’s Smithsonian Institution in a very practical and dangerous way, according to the New York Times.

The reason is that the land where those museums stand is low-lying and increasingly vulnerable to flooding.  The climate crisis ratchets up the likelihood of rising waters and increasing amounts of rainfall.

Rising seas will eventually push in water from the tidal Potomac River and submerge parts of the Mall, scientists say. More immediately, increasingly heavy rainstorms threaten the museums and their priceless holdings, particularly since many are stored in basements.

Water has already attacked the Smithsonian.  Christopher Flavelle offers many examples, from a historic train engine immersed in pooled rain to a flooded auditorium.

Smithsonian auditorium under water_NYT

“Flooding in the William G. McGowan Theater in the National Archives Building in 2006.”

At the American History Museum, water is already intruding.

It gurgles up through the floor in the basement. It finds the gaps between ground-level windows, puddling around exhibits. It sneaks into the ductwork, then meanders the building and drips onto display cases. It creeps through the ceiling in locked collection rooms, thief-like, and pools on the floor.

That should give any reader concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage spine-wrenching dread.

Looking ahead, multiple buildings and their precious collections are in danger:

Smithsonian museums at risk of 100 year flood_NYT

This depicts “100 year flood” dangers. That timeline shrinks with the climate crisis.

Protective measures are in play already:

Staff have been experimenting with defenses: Candy-red flood barriers lined up outside windows. Sensors that resemble electronic mouse traps, deployed throughout the building, that trigger alarms when wet. Plastic bins on wheels, filled with a version of cat litter, to be rushed back and forth to soak up the water.

Such steps are familiar to some people who live with intrusive water.  They may become better known as the century advances.

Yet these are basic, often DIY approaches.  Flavelle outlines more ambitious measures which may also be familiar to readers coping with dangerous flooding and rain, such as walls around the most endangered sites, flood gates, more pumps, a pumping station, and setting up “a $160 million storage site in Suitland, Md., for items from the American History Museum and the National Gallery of Art.”  It’s a familiar pattern, redirecting water or migrating away from the immediate danger.

Around the world a growing number of colleges, universities, archives, libraries, and other museums will face this awful pressure as the climate crisis worsens.  Some are dealing with it now.  We have to look ahead and plan – now.


On a personal note, this story resonates with me deeply.  Not because I’m working on climate change – I am – but because in the 1980s and early 1990s I worked in a used book store located in an Ann Arbor basement. Construction cracked the building’s structure, so that every rain shower gradually trickled water down to the shop. We had buckets, plastic shielding, plastic sheets in strategic locations.

Smithsonian water bucket_NYT

We were very familiar with DIY defenses like this.

Every rainstorm made us deeply anxious.

Eventually the owner successfully moved the shop to an aboveground location.  Yet from then on, the first drop of rain turns my shoulders to iron as I scan the area for endangered books.

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in climatechange, personal. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The climate crisis has hit the Smithsonian Museum and it will get worse

  1. Glen McGhee says:

    I cannot determine the authorship of this caption: “This depicts “100 year flood” dangers. That timeline shrinks with the climate crisis,” but the last statement bears clarification regarding the “100 year flood”.
    This is NOT a prediction; “100 year flood” is a stochastic rule-of-thumb for post-hoc events. I have, for example, experienced so-called “500 year floods” when living in Massachusetts — this simply refers to the flood probabilities assigned by engineers, and has nothing to so with “timelines”.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100-year_flood

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *