Climate Change Is Destroying Ancient Rock Art

Indigenous guide Terence Coulthard shows chef Rene Redzepi ancient rock art in Australia.

Indigenous guide Terence Coulthard shows ancient rock art to chef Rene Redzepi on a visit to Adnyamathanha land in the South Australian Outback on Oct. 3, 2010 in Flinders Ranges, Australia. Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images

Researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia are seeing climate change irreversibly damage ancient rock art before their very eyes. In just a matter of decades, rock art that has lasted thousands of years is being lost to the impacts of a warming world.

In a symposium titled, Archaeology, History, Indigenous and Heritage responses to the IPCC 6th Assessment Report and agendas for climate research and adaptation, experts warn about how rapidly the Indigenous art in Australia and around the world is fading away.

“Humans have been dealing with environmental challenges, climate extremes and natural disasters for millennia,” said Ania Kotarba, an archaeology lecturer and one of the symposium organizers. “While the severity and speed of changes now is new and pressing, archaeological and historical research can, and should, excavate examples of communities adapting to rapid change, often in a sustainable way, and offer insights for the future.”

The event is a response to the sixth and latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warns of rapid, intensifying, and likely irreversible impacts due to climate change. According to the IPCC, there’s little chance to limit warming to even 2°C, let alone 1.5°C, unless there is immediate and widespread action.

“Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways,” said Panmao Zhai, IPCC Working Group I co-chair, in a press release about the latest report. “The changes we experience will increase with additional warming.”

Impacts of climate change include rising sea levels — which can lead to erosion — increased rainfall, desertification, and extreme weather events, such as fires, flooding, and cyclones.

“Tropical cyclones are the most devastating weather events to affect coastal Australia, and storm surge is the most damaging consequence of cyclones on the preservation of coastal archaeological features and sites,” said Flinders archaeologist Peter Ross.

The ancient art is usually found on sandstone. As The Guardian explains, this type of rock can soak up water. But in the event of a fire, the water expands, the rock explodes, and the art is lost. Salt crystals can also cause the rocks to collapse as they expand and contract with the changing temperatures.

Archaeologists and historians are working to find ways to preserve the art and adapt to the changing climate. But ultimately, preservation depends on a global move toward immediate, sustainable solutions.

Alessandro Antonello, an environmental historian and one of the symposium organizers, said, “In the meantime, humanity must both drastically reduce carbon emissions and adapt our lives to these rapidly changing circumstances.”

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter