Emergency Preparedness in the Age of Climate Change
September is FEMA’s National Preparedness Month, and while we always take this opportunity to share disaster recovery and emergency preparedness tips for collections, there is an added urgency to this year’s message. As we watch the effects of climate change advance in real-time—from wildfires throughout Canada to record ocean temperatures and worsening tropical storms—CCAHA would like to echo the commitment from the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC) in the recently released Held in Trust report. It offers a plan for the future of conservation and preservation specifically grounded in social justice, equity, and environmental action. We encourage you to read this roadmap for the future of our field.
To combat the climate crisis, we must integrate sustainable practices into all aspects of our work, which includes planning. Understanding the myriad ways that climate change can affect cultural heritage is the first step in integrating them into preservation planning. Below, we explore some of the key factors to consider when planning for our new climate reality.
The Effects of Increased Temperature
Increased temperatures are linked to more frequent and severe heatwaves, which can accelerate the degradation of archival materials, artworks, and artifacts. In addition, rising temperatures due to climate change can put significant stress on HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) systems in cultural institutions, potentially leading to malfunctions or inefficiencies. The heightened frequency and intensity of wildfires in a warming climate pose a direct threat to cultural heritage, with the potential for irreparable damage or loss of collections. Thawing permafrost due to temperature increases can impact buildings and infrastructure in permafrost regions, affecting the structural integrity of facilities.
Sea Level Rise
The United States Gulf Coast and East Coast are experiencing some of the world's highest rates of sea level rise, putting coastal cultural institutions at risk of inundation and flooding. Rising sea levels could someday lead to the submersion of coastal cultural sites, causing damage or total loss. Sea level rise exacerbates saltwater intrusion, posing a threat to the preservation of collections and documents stored in coastal areas.
More frequent and intensified hurricanes and extreme precipitation events can lead to damaged buildings, causing leaks and flooding that jeopardize collections. Prolonged heatwaves can accelerate the deterioration of sensitive materials, such as photographs and paper. Extreme weather events, like floods and landslides, can disrupt access to and the security of cultural archives, posing logistical challenges for institutions.
Sea level rise is associated with increased tidal flooding, resulting in more frequent, non-storm-related inundation of cultural institutions in coastal areas. Rising water tables caused by sea level rise can lead to structural damage and mold growth in building foundations, putting collections at risk. Freshwater desalination may be needed to combat saltwater intrusion into underground storage areas and basements, which is essential for preserving collections.
Decreased Air Quality
Wildfires, intensified by climate change, can lead to high concentrations of airborne particulate matter, affecting indoor air quality in cultural institutions. Increased pollen concentration due to changing climate conditions can exacerbate allergen-related health issues among staff and visitors, necessitating improved filtration systems.
As climatologist Brian Brettschneider noted, August 2023 saw the highest global dew point for any August since 1940. For collections, increased humidity can mean accelerated mold and mildew growth, as well as the deterioration of sensitive materials like paper, parchment, and photographs.
Digital Preservation Challenges
Digital collections are not immune to climate change risks. Increased power outages and data center vulnerabilities due to extreme weather events can threaten the integrity and accessibility of digital archives.
Climate Change as a Risk Multiplier
Climate change acts as a risk multiplier, compounding existing vulnerabilities and threats to cultural heritage. Cultural institutions already facing risks from natural disasters, poor infrastructure, or inadequate funding may find these challenges magnified by climate change impacts. Implementing proactive climate resilience strategies is crucial to safeguarding cultural collections and ensuring their accessibility to future generations.
The above factors can be considered when developing a preservation plan, a set of guidelines catered to an institution's specific collections and capacity. Like a strategic plan for collections care, this long-range document sets a framework for preservation goals, laying a roadmap of action items for several years. For more information, visit our Preservation Planning page or contact CCAHA Preservation Services Coordinator Camilla Dawson at email@example.com.