Smithsonian to open new fossil exhibit with focus on climate change

You can learn a lot about the climate today by studying ancient history.

Climate change may seem like a problem for modern times, but a new museum exhibit argues we can learn a lot about the climate today by studying ancient history.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is set to open it's newly updated Hall of Fossils this weekend for the first time in five years. The new exhibit is the first of it's kind, in a way, because it focuses on how to connect what scientists know about the past climate from paleontology to the challenges of climate change today.

The Hall of Fossils has specimens ranging from a towering mastodon at the entrance to a frond from a palm tree found in Alaska that has been dated back about 50 million years.

Scott Wing, the curator of plant fossils at the museum, said that it's relatively new for paleontologists to focus on how their research can contribute to the current debate on Earth's climate and the possible consequences of human influence on the environment.

"The take-home message is that the past can give us a sense of how the planet works and how the planet may change under our influence," he said on Tuesday. "And We’re quite open about the fact that humans are now changing this planet faster then it’s almost ever been changed in our history."

The Smithsonian Institution is partially a government entity and partially a private institution, but Kirk Johnson, director for the Museum of Natural History, said the Smithsonian tries to stay "fanatically apolitical" and that political leadership of the U.S. government doesn't influence the content of any exhibits.

Johnson also said that David H. Koch, who donated $35 million for the new exhibit, had no role on the details or the subject matter.

"It's really the scientists working with exhibit teams that build the content of the hall and and it became very clear even before we started this exhibit that the climate is a very important through line in the history of life on Earth and that, not only is that the case but that climate actually from deep time climate gives us some perspectives that are deeply relevant to today's climate crisis," he said Tuesday.

The Hall of Fossils at the Museum of Natural History opens this Saturday, June 8.