By Eric Roston and Carolina Gonzalez(Bloomberg) –Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, is a 14-mile-long triangle of land that sits 2,300 miles west of Chile, making it one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth. The island is famous for its 900 monumental stone statues, ranging from 2 meters (6.5 feet) to 20 meters high. Among the world’s most recognizable and celebrated cultural landmarks, the works are increasingly under threat from climate change—as is the way of life of the Rapa Nui people.
Its history has long fascinated researchers, both locally and internationally. A thriving statue-carving culture of more than 15,000 people in the early 1600s declined within a century to perhaps one-fifth as many. A long-held view blamed resource overuse, leading to ecological and societal collapse. Recent research has suggested that European contact may have set off Rapa Nui’s decline in the decades after a Dutch ship first landed in 1722. It is now a special territory of Chile.
What’s not in dispute are the challenges the island is facing. The oceans are rising, rainfall is diminishing and the island’s 7,750 people, reeling from the effects of Covid-19, are increasingly concerned about climate change eating away at both their legacy and the economy they built to celebrate and protect it. The island was supposed to emerge from pandemic-related closure in February, but the target has been pushed back indefinitely.
The statues, called moai, stand on platforms called ahu,where human remains were placed. The monument sites are concentrated along the island’s coasts, making them vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm inundation and even tsunamis, which some residents fear more than gradual erosion and flooding. Waves are pulling stones away from the ahu, jeopardizing the safety of a World Heritage site that a UN agency in 1995 called “an artistic and architectural tradition of great power and imagination.”
Jane Downes, an archaeologist at Scotland’s University of the Highlands and Islands who’s worked at Rapa Nui sites since 2009, has seen first-hand how the wind and sea eat away at the moai and ahu. “Once it starts, it can increase exponentially,” she says.
Extreme weather risks may not be new, but they are increasing. A 1960 tsunami felled moai at the prominent site of Ahu Tongariki, which was restored in the 1990s. A partial collapse of Ahu Tahai in May 2021 foreshadows new problems, says Hetereki Huke, an architect leading the development of a Rapa Nui climate action plan.
“This is starting to happen,” he says. “It’s going to be more common than before, and it might not be a slow deteriorating process but rather it could be a large event that could cause an irremediable patrimonial loss.”
Having contributed essentially nothing to climate change, the Rapa Nui are just one of the world’s many indigenous peoples struggling against its threats. Local and international scientists and Chile’s government have worked since 2016 to put in place a climate change action plan. The first stage requires 200 million Chilean pesos ($246,000), but funding stalled during the pandemic.
A sea wall funded years ago with a Japanese grant defends against waves at one moai site, Ahu Runga Va’e.
The Pacific Ocean around Easter Island is rising at about the global average, potentially 0.5 meters or more by 2100. Storms are a growing concern, even though overall rainfall may decline 15% in the coming decades.
Annual precipitation decreased from 1,311 milliliters in 1991 to 992 ml in 2020, based on data from Rapa Nui’s weather station. In a University of Chile climate study in 2019, about 75% of analyzed simulations predicted an average decrease in annual precipitation greater than 10% by the end of the century.
The lack of rain has already caused Rona Raraku, a volcanic lake, to dry up in recent years. The Rapa Nui people use it both for water and to commemorate their cultural legacy.
“The people of Rapa Nui have management systems for their resources that are very old and that are traditional,” Huke says.
The island’s legacy fuels its main economic activity. Tens of thousands of tourists brought approximately $100 million a year to the island before the pandemic, according to a recent report by the Rapa Nui chamber of commerce. This sector employed 30% of the population in 2019, but more than 90% of the people benefited in some way from tourism, whether through accommodations, shops, fishing or other services, making it the island’s largest source of income. The pandemic hit hard, with more than half of households containing a family member who lost a job.
“The entire island lives off the tourism industry,” Huke says. “So the economic dimension of climate change is important.”
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May 7, 2022
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