Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, having failed to sink beneath the waves of rising sea levels, the New York Times has now revealed an existential threat to those strange stone men of Easter Island. The newspaper sent its Colombian correspondent, Nicholas Casey, and photographer Josh Haner 2,200 miles (3520 kms) out into mid-Pacific to document the coming cataclysm. Haner, with forethought, took with him a drone, with which he was able to photograph parts of the island from new perspectives. On its website the newspaper was able to run those moving aerial images underneath its moving text:
Easter Island is critically vulnerable to rising ocean levels, and Waves are beginning to reach statues and platforms built by an ancient civilization, plus The island risks losing its cultural heritage. Again.
Ah, not exactly.
The intrepid Casey found an islander, Hetereki Huke, who showed him some bones on the shoreline. Mr Huke, an architect, said they were the remains of his ancestors who had been buried in platform tombs, now being exposed by the sea. At that point in the text, there is an embedded link to a 2016 UNESCO report, World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate, as authority for the doomsday article.
Rapa Nui National Park (Easter Island) is covered only in a brief sketch in that report, one of eighteen summaries supplementing twelve fully referenced case studies of more important heritage sites. What it says is this: “With climate change, the greater wave heights and increased energy of the waves hitting the ahu’s (platforms’) vertical basalt slab walls, the ahu are expected to undergo worsening damage and the moai (statues) that sit on top of them could topple.” No mention of rising sea levels. [Notably, in the sketch on Rock Islands, Southern Lagoon, Palau, regarded as one of the world’s best diving sites, there is ample warning of rising temperatures, coral bleaching, and ocean acidification, but again no sea level reference.]
But our NYT reporter went to an earlier report by his newspaper: Climate Model Predicts West Antarctic Ice Sheet Could Melt Rapidly. This described the ice sheet as “a sword of Damocles hanging over human civilization,” and quoted researchers’ forecast of the rise of the sea exceeding a foot per decade. That article dismissed any chance of New York, London, Hong Kong and Sydney surviving the next 400 years in their present form. From that, Casey predicted the sea levels being five to six feet higher by 2100 and, presumably, an end to the Rapa Nui civilisation. Again.
What Casey and Haner brought back from Easter Island is really a story of normal coastal erosion. The islanders – for whatever reason – stood most of their great stone figures around the coastline. The Times article has a neat map with red dots identifying their sites. Since they have stood there for more than a thousand years, it was inevitable that regular wave action would encroach on the shoreline sooner or later, carrying away man-made objects foolishly erected on the cliffs.
There are also half a dozen large petroglyphs on the edge of the volcanic crater of Orongo, a similarly vulnerable place. There has already been one landslide, and the national park officials are reported to be concerned they are at risk of storms and gravity*. There seems no agreement on what to do to preserve them.
Easter Island has a resident population of 5000, dependent on tourism which brings about 60,000 visitors a year. This industry is now at risk from water shortage, due to reduced summer rainfall, due to – yes, climate change. Now, thanks to the New York Times, even the moai are moaning about AGW. But the newspaper provided no evidence that sea level rises have anything to do with their problems.
*Yes, gravity, whose effects no grant-funded climate scientiest has managed to blame on CO2. Not yet anyway.