Floods Are Threatening a Treasure Trove of American Heritage

Water is seeping into storage rooms at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. A fix appears years away.,

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We’re also covering a political struggle that could shape the future of clean energy, a U.S. government report on oil drilling that barely mentions climate change, and albatross divorces.


ImageRobert Horton, an assistant director for collections and archives at the National Museum of American History, in a storage area in the museum's basement.
Robert Horton, an assistant director for collections and archives at the National Museum of American History, in a storage area in the museum’s basement.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

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 agreed to give me and a New York Times photographer, Erin Schaff, a tour beneath its most flood-exposed 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 also comes through first-floor windows, air ducts and even gurgles up through the ground.

Museum workers have been experimenting with a series of defenses, including flood barriers outside of windows and beneath doors, electronic water alarms throughout the building and buckets full of an absorbent cat litter that can be rushed to the site of a flood. Longer-term solutions, including flood gates around the building and moving items to a new storage facility in suburban Maryland, are 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.”


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A cobalt mining operation in Kolwezi, Congo. Credit…Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Business is booming at mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country produces about two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, and cobalt is vital for the batteries in electric vehicles.

But Congo also has a problem: A reputation for tolerating dangerous, makeshift mining operations where unskilled and poorly equipped workers, including children, get exploited, injured and killed.

Some leaders in Congo want to clean up the industry. But the man who has put himself in charge of the effort, Albert Yuma Mulimbi, chairman of the state mining enterprise, is a problem, according to Congolese and American officials. They accuse him of abusing his position to enrich 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 help the country ride the global green wave into an era of new prosperity, or will he help condemn it to more strife and turmoil? 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. And, please check out 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 2 examines how, despite decades of U.S. diplomatic efforts, China came to dominate cobalt mining in Congo.


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An offshore oil and gas drilling platform seen from Dauphin Island, Ala., in 2013.Credit…Steve Nesius/Reuters

An Interior Department report has recommended that the federal government raise the fees that oil and gas companies pay to drill on public lands.

But the report was nearly silent about the climate effects from drilling on public land. The United States Geological Survey estimates that drilling on public land and in federal waters is responsible for almost a quarter of the greenhouse gases generated by the United States that are warming the planet.

As I reported with my NYT climate team colleague Lisa Friedman, the silence angered some environmentalists, who want the federal government to consider the climate effects of drilling when it weighs applications for new leases. That would be a step toward ending new oil and gas drilling on public lands, something President Biden promised during his campaign.

Back story: If royalty rates for drilling do go up, it would be the first increase since 1920.


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A pair of black-browed albatrosses courting. Couples seldom split, but researchers found a sharp increase in separation rates when sea temperatures are warmer. Credit…iStock/Getty Images

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

Typically, albatross couples separate only if they’ve been unable to successfully raise a chick. (For castoff males, who seldom instigate a split, breaking up usually heralds a lifetime of bachelorhood.) Now, though, researchers say some albatross separations could be linked to climate change.

According to a 15-year survey of 15,500 breeding pairs of black-browed albatrosses in the Falkland Islands, the separation rate among the birds rises to almost 8 percent, from an average of about 4 percent, in years when the sea is at its warmest.

Francesco Ventura, a Ph.D. student in conservation biology at the University of Lisbon and the lead author of a recent paper on the survey, told me in an interview for my article this week on albatross divorce that researchers already knew that breeding failures are more common in years when the water is warmer. 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.

For now, the Falklands albatross population in the study is thriving. 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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