Syracuse scientists worry about climate effects on national treasures

Syracuse University Press

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Syracuse-based scientists announced today that they are gravely concerned about the impact of climate change on some of the nation’s oldest science and national treasures, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History, from which this article is excerpted.

The scientists, both members of the Smithsonian’s board of directors, believe the Smithsonian is facing similar challenges to what many other cities and states in the United States are experiencing. Many scientists worry, based on their years of research, that the Smithsonian will not be able to look as sleek, spiffy and appealing as it did when it opened in 1899.

They fear it will become too hot, too windy and too rainy to be used as a museum, and that scientists’ writings and research could be disrupted by changes in the climate.

Over the next three years, the Smithsonian scientists will spend $500,000 researching how climate change might affect some of the nation’s best known landmarks and its scientific archives.

They may be the first to point out that the science and math offerings in many public high schools is not up to speed with global scientific requirements. They will remind the public about the continuing threats posed by global warming and how they tie directly into other issues that are pressing today, such as clean energy and carbon emissions.

The concept will be that the Smithsonian can show how the climate is affecting its world-renowned collections – but how the climate is also affecting science itself.

“The collection is really a monument to where science was at one time,” said David Goldstein, the director of collections at the National Museum of Natural History. “Those special collections will be under more pressure and heat, and on top of that, scientists will be challenged by changing climate conditions. That’s the paradox of our time: Human activity is affecting the climate at a rate that threatens science.”

Goldstein points out that conditions in some of the buildings built over the years have been very kind to science but also could make it more difficult to make science accessible in ways that motivate students today.

“The places where most of the research is done are not the best places to be in a climate that is cooling and getting colder,” Goldstein said. “The collections are really at risk.”

Even the newly announced museum in New York City that will share the Smithsonian’s historic collection, including such famous dinosaurs as Diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus Rex, could see heat and wind exposure, since scientists are working with warmer rocks and areas with more atmospheric instability.

“We feel we will be affected as much as the new museum,” said Deborah Gist, the director of collections at the National Museum of American History, a Smithsonian Institution outpost near the Smithsonian museums at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. “The buildings are more likely to be affected by global warming.

The scientists at these museums have asked their peers to raise the issue with Congress and the public. They do not have the resources to hire an outside company for more climate research but are willing to fork over their tax dollars.

There are many possibilities for research: What are the most vulnerable parts of the collections in the museums and archives, and could such damage be prevented by what most consider to be carbon-neutral energy sources? Could more efficient storage and display be possible?

Will it be possible to incorporate some of these changes into the exhibits at the museums?

David MacKay, a former adjunct professor at Kansas State University who researches climate change and history, also will participate in the research. “The climate is the climate,” MacKay said. “The Smithsonian may have to turn its research plans away, but at least they’ll be able to talk about what might happen.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” MacKay said. “We’re not just going to focus on 1,200-page reports; I want to see what can be done in three years. This is something we’ve never had in the past.”

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