The Aftermath of the Snow at the Smithsonian

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It has certainly been an unprecedented winter here in Washington, D.C., where a grand total of 54.9 inches of snow had fallen as of February 10, breaking the previous seasonal snowfall record set in 1898-99.

So how has the Smithsonian been affected? Now that the skies and the streets are clear, we here at ATM take a look.

First off, the Smithsonian’s gardens took quite a hit. Throughout the storms, the horticulture team was working to clear walkways and desperately save some of the more valuable plants. With the gardens still buried in snow, the condition of the gardens is hard to assess. But Janet Draper, horticulturalist at the Smithsonian’s Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, says that colleagues of hers all along the Mall are reporting damage to Southern magnolias, hollies and elms. Many of the trees could not handle the extra weight of the snow, and branches bent over and cracked under the pressure. “The agaves are probably toast,” she adds. “But there’s a pro and a con to everything.” The snowfall will both raise the water table and act as an insulator, protecting the plants from further damage. According to Draper, the trees, though hard hit, look to benefit from the snow. A flash flood gets the ground’s surface wet, but the slow melting of snow cover like this provides a deep soaking. Plus, says Draper, “Sometimes this kind of damage is just the nudge we need to renovate an area.”

Sculpture conservator Gwynne Ryan was relieved to find that none of the downed trees landed on sculptures in the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden. Every summer, conservators identify and address any structural weaknesses in the sculptures that may be especially vulnerable to the harsher conditions of winter. At this point, they clean the sculptures and apply a protective coating to them that reduces the amount of contact the sculptures have with moisture and pollutants. “The types of treatments that are in place are the same, pretty much, that are used in sculpture gardens around the globe,” says Ryan. Snowier places, included. Although no measures short of bringing the sculptures indoors can provide perfect protection against the elements, she is not expecting to see any unusual damages from the snowfall.

Many on staff at the National Zoo stayed overnight during the storms, working around the clock to make sure that the animals were fed and paths for both keepers and animals were clear. The commissary team managed to deliver meals to the animals on time every day, and some Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) came in and opened a restaurant so that staff staying on site could have a place to eat. “It was an enormous team effort,” says Don Moore, the zoo’s Associate Director of Animal Care.

For any pending storm, be it a thunderstorm, hurricane, ice or snowstorm, explains Moore, they consider the animals’ well-being in the weather and possible containment issues. Luckily, many of the animals were taken indoors, because there were a bunch of downed trees and collapsed enclosures. (Two birds flew the coop!)

Pandas playing in the snow at the National Zoo. Photo by Ann Batdorf/NZP.

It must have been fun watching some of the animals react to the snow though. According to Moore, a particularly snowphobic Sumatran tiger had to be moved from one holding area to another. Keepers cut a path through the snow, and he “went out, looked at the snow, did one of those cat shake-your-paw-off-because-it’s-wet-kind-of-things and ran across to the other side to get back in.” Meanwhile, the pandas playfully tumbled around in the snow. After the storms, keepers dug paths in the outdoor exhibit spaces for the animals, just like many dog owners in the D.C.-area did.

As you probably heard reported, part of the roof and wall of one of the metal buildings of the Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland, collapsed under the weight of the snow. About 1,500 artifacts from the National Air and Space Museum, including 800 pieces of air and space-themed artwork, are stored in the building, though reportedly none are thought to be damaged. “The priority is to stabilize the building, take the artifacts out and relocate them to other places,” says National Air and Space Museum’s spokeswoman Claire Brown. Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough and others inspected the affected building and those around it, but nobody can enter and attempt to remove the artifacts until engineers assess the site.

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