Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary: Before the Water Comes: Mapping for Preservation

After the heart-breaking reports of Hurricane Dorian’s devastation in the Bahamas, I emailed Patrice Williams, the director of the National Archives, and asked, “Are you and your colleagues okay after hurricane Dorian? Did you have damage to the archives?” She replied that both the colleagues and the archives are safe, as they were out of the direct path of the storm. “Whew,” I thought. But we know that a national archives does not hold all important records: business records, archives of faith-based institutions, school records, archives of all sorts of nongovernmental institutions, local notary and land transaction records, personal papers in homes and bank boxes—these are all vulnerable and the damage to them cannot be determined with a quick email.

 It is not clear what effect global warming had on the violence of the Category 5 hurricane that was Dorian, but it is unquestionable that climate change is real, with no cessation in sight. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report showed oceans warmer than estimated (see HRWG News 2018-10 and 2019-01); for a recent analysis of the warming world, see Along with warmer oceans, climate change brings the melt of ice caps and glaciers, leading to sea level rise. As the National Geographic explains, “The most recent special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we can expect the oceans to rise between 10 and 30 inches (26 to 77 centimeters) by 2100 with temperatures warming 1.5 °C. . . . Another analysis based on NASA and European data skewed toward the higher end of that range, predicting a rise of 26 inches (65 centimeters) by the end of this century if the current trajectory continues.” That will mean permanent flooding in thousands of populated areas, not only on the coasts but also along the rivers that lead to the sea.

 We know that in the wake of disasters people need documents. The foresighted Syrian project called The Day After copied court and land records in Aleppo, Syria, and took copies out of the country to save them from manmade disaster. But people also need records of marriages, education, employment, affiliations, health. And communities need the documents of heritage in order to root themselves in their culture.

 Archivists have thought a great deal about coping with disasters, such as floods and hurricanes that result in (usually) temporary displacement. And archivists have given some thought to disaster preparedness, too. But inexorable climate change requires a longer strategy. Archives of all kinds will have to assess the risk, decide how to mitigate that risk, and take action, which may take years to accomplish. Does the archives move? Does it stay in place but send security copies to another location, either in the country or outside? Does it need evacuation plans? Will building changes, like a seawall, be enough?

 To begin, archivists must to understand the scope of the changes that are coming. One way to do this is to map. The first step would be to map the locations of the archives in the country or province, including in government offices, major businesses, faith-based organizations, schools, and so forth. No mapping project will find all of them, but it should be able to locate the major ones. Next overlay that map with the best projections of sea level rise, such as in the forthcoming IPCC publication Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate ( With that information in hand, a council of stakeholders can assess the nature of the risk and decide on actions that need to be taken to prevent mass loss of archives.

 As the world’s climate continues its rapid change, we can be certain that not all archives will be as lucky as the National Archives of the Bahamas was this time. We archivists need to get ready to preserve the records of our civilizations.