This article originally appeared in Museum magazine’s January/February 2023 issue, a benefit of AAM membership.
2022 marked a new high in climatic extremes. The US set records for number of tornadoes (29 in March); heat (nearly 1,000 record high temperatures in one week of September alone); and flooding (St. Louis and Kentucky both experienced “thousand year” rain events). More than 100 million people were put on heat alerts in July when over 85 percent of the country experienced temperatures that reached or exceeded 90°F. According to Climate Central, a research and communications nonprofit, the frequency of billion-dollar weather disasters is now about one event every 18 days.
These signals are a clear warning that we are entering an era in which past data about climate (flood, fire, rain, drought, heat, cold, storm) is no longer an accurate predictor of future risk. Even as climate change itself remains a political bone of contention, governments and organizations are scrambling to adapt to the new reality. Phoenix created an Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, California launched a new heat ranking system to protect the vulnerable, and Miami joined a growing roster of cities around the world that have appointed chief heat officers.
Museums should be at the forefront of these adaptations as guardians of natural and cultural heritage imperiled by extreme weather, as organizations vulnerable to climate disasters, and as infrastructure that can support their communities in times of danger.
Museums are advised to do the following:
- Monitor the most recent data on risk projections, drawing on sites such as climatecentral.org, climatecheck.com, and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (c2es.org).
- Reassess how extremes of heat and cold and events such as flood and storm are likely to impact their communities, budgets, and operations.
- Evaluate how the museum’s physical plant might need to be upgraded to withstand climate extremes.
- Revisit insurance coverage, and work with insurance providers to mitigate risk and adjust coverage, if needed.
- Identify how they might serve in an integrated network of local response to climate events.
- Help combat climate change through public education and making changes to their own operations.
Last year, museums of the Houston Museum District encouraged residents to use their air-conditioned galleries as a refuge from the hottest July on record. In Columbus, Ohio, COSI offered free admission as its neighbors coped with power outages while temperatures soared.
In the UK, the government has recruited libraries and museums into a national network of public organizations serving as warming hubs in the face of plunging temperatures and soaring energy prices in the coming winter. (Museums, in turn, have asked the government to subsidize the high costs of keeping galleries open and warm.