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Floods Threaten to Endanger a Treasure Trove of American Heritage

Floods Threaten to Endanger a Treasure Trove of American Heritage

Christopher Flavelle

The largest museum complex in the world is struggling to protect itself against the effects of climate change — a warning about the difficulty of adapting to warming, even for organizations with top experts and deep pockets.

In a document issued this fall, the Smithsonian Institution warned that increased flooding on the National Mall, the two-mile-long park in the heart of Washington that houses most of its museums, threatened to outpace the Smithsonian’s ability to defend those museums and their priceless contents.

Smithsonian managers offered to take me and Erin Schaff (New York Times photographer) under its most vulnerable building, the National Museum of American History. We saw a storage room filled with centuries’ worth of porcelain, where a tarp-and-trash-can contraption had been set up in the corner to catch water coming from the ceiling. Storm water can also enter the first floor through windows, air ducts, and even gurgles up through ground.

Museum workers have been testing a range of defenses. These include flood barriers outside of doors and under windows, electronic water alarms throughout building, and buckets containing an absorbent cat food that can be rushed to the scene of a flood. The long-term solutions, such as flood gates around buildings and moving items into a new storage facility in suburban Maryland for the items, are still years away. You can read my article here.

Quotable: “We follow rain like you wouldn’t believe,” said Nancy Bechtol, head of facilities for the Smithsonian. “We’re constantly watching those weather forecasts to know whether we’ve got one coming.”


The Democratic Republic of Congo’s mines are experiencing a boom in business. The country produces about two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, and cobalt is vital for the batteries in electric vehicles.

Congo also has a problem. It is known for its tolerance of dangerous, untrained and poorly equipped workers who are exploited and even killed in their makeshift mining operations.

Some leaders in Congo want the industry to be cleaned up. According to Congolese officials and American officials, Albert Yuma Mulimbi is the man who has taken over the task, and is now a problem. They accuse him, among others, of using his position to benefit friends, family members, and political allies. Mr. Yuma denies any wrongdoing and has carried out elaborate lobbying campaigns to clear his name in Washington and in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa.

Will Mr. Yuma allow the country to ride the global green wave into a era of new prosperity or will he make it worse? You can read our investigation into Mr. Yuma’s dealings, the third in a series of articles I wrote with my Times colleague Eric Lipton. Please also see the first two installments.

Part 1 looks at how Congo’s vast reserves of cobalt gave the country a central role in the electric vehicle revolution.

Part 2This article examines how, despite decades worth of U.S. diplomacy efforts, the situation has not improved. China came to dominate cobalt miningCongo


A report by the Interior Department recommends that the federal government increase the fees oil and gas companies pay for drilling on public lands.

However, the report was silent on the climate effects of drilling on public lands. According to the United States Geological Survey almost 25% of the greenhouse gasses that have been released by the United States are due to drilling on public land and in federal waters.

As I reported with my NYT climate team colleague Lisa FriedmanSome environmentalists were angered by the government’s inaction. They want the federal government consider the climate impacts of drilling when considering applications for new leases. This would be a step in the right direction to end new oil and natural gas drilling on public lands, as President Biden promised during campaign.

Back storyIf drilling royalty rates rise, it would be the first time since 1920.


It can take several years for albatrosses and to find the one. But once they do, it’s almost always for keeps. The large sea birds are monogamous and among the most beautiful on the planet.

Typically, albatross couples separate only if they’ve been unable to successfully raise a chick. (Castoff males rarely initiate a split. Breaking up usually marks the beginning of a lifetime as a bachelor. Researchers now believe that some albatross divorces may be linked to climate change.

See Also
Llanerch Bridge over the flooded river Clwyd near Saint Asaph in north Wales is seen after large parts of central and northern England and Wales were caught in the path of Storm Christoph, Saint Asaph, Wales, Thursday Jan. 21, 2021. ( AP Photo Jon Super)

A 15-year survey of 15,500 breeding albatrosses in Falkland Islands shows that the separation rate rises to nearly 8 percent from an average of 4 percent in years when the water is warm.

Francesco Ventura, a Ph.D. candidate in conservation biology at the University of Lisbon, and the lead author of a paper on the survey, spoke to me in an interview my article this week on albatross divorceResearchers knew that breeding failures are more prevalent in years with warmer water. Still, that alone doesn’t fully account for the increase in separations. “We see there is still something that is left unexplained,” he said.

One possible explanation may be that the females, stressed out by an unusually warm environment, mistake their unlucky male partners as the source of the strain and decide they’d be better off without them.

The study’s Falklands albatross populations are thriving at the moment. Though splits are more common than before, the birds’ overall ability to breed seems mostly unimpeded. But Ventura said the results showed us how little we know about climate change’s potential to wreak havoc in unexpected places.

“We very arrogantly thought that we can measure it all, we understand it all, we know it all,” he said. “That’s actually not true.”


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