Climate Change and National Archives

Mary Malone

I started this project focusing on the national archives of some Pacific island nations.  Not being able to actually visit these archives, I was often distracted by the very beautiful pictures of these coral islands presented by Google during my research; images of blue water and a vibrant sky dotted with big white clouds provided a much needed virtual vacation from the cold, wet winter I was experiencing in Seattle.  But this beautiful, warm paradise can wreak havoc on historical documents and artifacts.  As archivists, librarians, and museum professionals, we are well aware of the risks that these institutions face, including extreme weather, natural disasters, war, aging infrastructure, and the very modern concern of hardware and software degredation and obsolesence.  Archives have always faced some level of risk and accordingly, many archives have some sort of disaster plan to deal with the those disasters most likely to affect their archives.

A particular risks to the national archives of the Pacific island region (including Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia) is the environment, as the tropical climate of these island nations presents a challenge to the preservation of analog records and to the maintenance of hardware necessary to house digital records. Hot, humid environments are the archenemy to archival preservation.  Paper and water just don’t mix.

Not only does the environment pose a challenge to the archives of Pacific island nations, but Matthew Gordon-Clark points out two new risks to these island national archives in his 2011 article “Paradise lost? Pacific island archives threatened by climate change”: rising sea levels and extreme weather events.  As sea levels rise due to global warming, those low-lying Pacific islands are at particular risk of damaging or losing their archives to encroahing sea levels and storm surge water (the author mentions Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Tokolau, and Kiribati at greatest risk).  Even those island nations that sit well above sea level still risk damage to national infrastructure due to rising sea levels, which will impact all areas of governement and life.  Additionally, extreme weather events (stronger and more frequent hurricanes, for example) pose a myriad of risks to all Pacific island countries and their national archives.  This very real possibility should be considered by the national archives of these nations, especially if they have the opportunity to relocate inland to higher ground.

Indeed, changing weather is an issue for all nations and cultural heritage institutions world wide, not just those in the Pacific, and should be addressed in disaster plans to ensure that we preserve those documents and artifacts that are most important to our countries.  Until then, let us hope that these seemingly idylic Pacific islands remain so.


Gordon-Clark, M. (2011). Paradise lost? Pacific island archives threatened by climate change. Archival Science, 12(1), 51-67.