How Climate Change Affects the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough looks at how our scientists are studying our changing climate

Melting sea ice is a threat to many Arctic species, including polar bears.
Melting sea ice is a threat to many Arctic species, including polar bears. Mike Hill / Getty Images

Watching Hurricane Sandy destroy parts of New York City and New Jersey last fall, I was transported back to those painful days spent witnessing Katrina pound the Gulf Coast in 2005. After Katrina killed more than 1,800 people in New Orleans and left the Ninth Ward submerged, I served on the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council’s Committee on New Orleans Regional Hurricane Protection Projects. That gave me a firsthand view of the storm’s cost, both literal and psychological. Still, because of New Orleans’ uniqueness, lying under sea level, many Americans were able to distance themselves from the tragedy.

With Sandy, no such distancing was possible. Once again, the costs will be extraordinary. And as policy makers consider measures like surge-protection systems that must last 100 years or more, there will be no escaping a discussion about global warming and rising seas.

Climate scientists debate whether global warming leads to more and stronger hurricanes—many do think that warmer seas feed energy to storms—but when the oceans are rising, any given storm more gravely threatens coastal areas.

According to the National Research Council, over the past century the average global temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, with most of the rise coming in recent decades. Since 1870, the sea level has climbed eight inches, thanks to the expansion of warming water plus glacial runoff. A landmark study published in November 2012 in Science found that the rate of ice loss in Greenland has grown fivefold since the 1990s.

We’re not in the policy-making business, but the Smithsonian can help provide the context for sound policy decisions, in part by better communicating what we’re already doing. To single out just one endeavor, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has been overseeing studies of 47 forest sites worldwide, measuring whether trees are absorbing more carbon as it accumulates in the atmosphere, which could slow the buildup of greenhouse gases. As of yet (these are early days), the answer remains elusive.

A couple of years ago, over a feast of whale meat, I heard elders of the Yupik tribe, on an island in the Bering Strait, describe how melting ice was destroying their traditional hunting routes. Global warming is a bread-and-butter issue for them; given the need to protect our cities, it’s also becoming one for us.

Last fall, the Smithsonian hosted a symposium on the Anthropocene (the Age of Humans), a term scientists use to refer to the era in which the environment became inextricably intertwined with acts of man. We’re moving toward integrating our work on climate change across disciplines, under that umbrella concept. The Smithsonian will bring to bear its multiple perspectives on climate change in the interest of public understanding of this critical issue.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.