WASHINGTON — Senior Smithsonian officials will testify before Congress Thursday the forces of climate change, from the inexorable rise of the Potomac River to flooding near the core of the National Mall, pose an increasing threat to vulnerable treasures of the nation.
Two of the Smithsonian’s structures most at risk, the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History, house invaluable collections within their lower levels.
Both buildings have well-documented instances of water entering artifact storage space – challenges described by the Smithsonian as alarming, expensive, yet not insurmountable.
“Our deferred maintenance backlog, currently estimated at over $1 billion, further jeopardizes the safety of our facilities and collections,” said Nancy J. Bechtol, director of Smithsonian facilities.
“Extreme weather events already pose a major risk but could further exacerbate maintenance vulnerabilities.”
The National Air and Space Museum’s archival and library collections have already been relocated from the building’s basement to a facility within the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport.
Similar moves are planned or in progress, underscoring how the effects of extreme weather have moved from the theoretical to the expected.
Thursday’s noon hearing before the Committee on House Administration will focus on protecting the Smithsonian’s collection against climate change. Yet the scope of the institution’s concern has now widened beyond the National Mall.
“As the planet warms, flooding, both from increased frequency and intensity of storms – causing interior drainage and storm surge flooding – and sea-level rise, is a growing risk not only in the National Mall area, but also at the National Zoological Park, in New York City, and at our facilities in Florida and Panama,” Bechtol wrote in her prepared testimony.
“The threat of flooding goes beyond water damage. Higher humidity in the case of a water event or temperature fluctuations that might occur should flooding damage our climate control systems, power systems, or generators, could also greatly damage the millions of objects in our care.”
Information provided to the committee shows the Smithsonian will construct a flood-safe space in Suitland, Md., storing collections now housed in flood-prone basements along the National Mall and within the National Gallery of Art. The building is set to begin during the fiscal year 2022.
“The Smithsonian developed a 30-year plan to improve collections space conditions,” wrote Cathy L. Helm, the Smithsonian’s inspector general. “Which will cost an estimated $1.3 billion dollars (in 2013 dollars), or more than $1.5 billion dollars today, to fully implement.”
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