Challenges of Climate Change

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Eira Tansey about archives, archivists, and climate change. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series, please email archivesissues@gmail.com.

Perhaps one of the most under-documented topics in the archival literature is how climate change will affect archives. This is a distressing gap in our professional discourse, because the effects of climate change present serious threats to archival repositories across the world, as well as within the United States. Even as records of warmest global temperatures on record keep climbing, our profession has not taken the necessary steps to secure our staff, repositories, and records against the threats posed by rising sea levels and increasingly severe catastrophic weather.

According to the US Global Change Research Program’s 2014 National Climate Assessment, more than 50% of Americans live in coastal communities (p. 88). The threats of sea-level rise caused by anthropogenic climate change pose real and near-term threats to thousands of miles of America’s coastline:

More than 5,790 square miles and more than $1 trillion of property and     structures are at risk of inundation from sea level rise of two feet above current sea level – which could be reached by 2050 under a high rate of sea level rise, by 2070 assuming a lower rate of rise, and sooner in areas of rapid land subsidence. Roughly half of the vulnerable property value is located in Florida (p. 90).

In addition to sea-level rise, the increasing severity of disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires threaten large areas of the United States. The Northeast and Midwest are experiencing heavier downpours (which can lead to flooding and erosion), and projections indicate we are likely to experience more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, and larger and more frequent wildfires (pp. 25-27, 53). It can often take archives years to recover from floods and hurricanes, assuming these events do not result in a total loss. Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures that wrought devastation on the libraries and archives of the Gulf South resulted in a years-long recovery effort, even among the largest research libraries.

Few archives exist as independent entities — most archives are part of a larger parent organization, whether a government, university, corporation, museum, or other institution. The lessons archivists have learned from advocacy activities demonstrate that we must continually make the case for support to a wide variety of stakeholders who often do not prioritize archives. It is time for us to critically examine how our parent institutions have begun planning for adaptation to climate change. If you work in a geographically vulnerable area, how is your institution’s relationship with state emergency management officials? What disaster and adaptation plans are in place? Where do archives and archivists fit into the puzzle?

The archival community will have to reckon with both short- and long-term challenges in the context of climate change. Short-term, we must ensure a robust level of disaster preparation and management. Long-term, we may face agonizing questions about relocation of records to safer places. Outside of our profession, we must call on our country’s leaders to commit to reduction of carbon emissions, and we must stand with others to demand better infrastructure so that our most vulnerable citizens and most cherished sites remain safe.

 

Eira Tansey works as the Digital Archivist/Records Manager at the University of Cincinnati. She chairs the Protect Committee of ProjectARCC, and is currently conducting research on the climate change impacts on American archives.

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