Easter Island's iconic statues could disappear because of climate change

The Moai of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, have stood for more than 500 years. Now, storm surges and erosion put them at risk of falling into the sea.

Storm surges and sea level rise threaten the island's cultural heritage

Rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms are putting Easter Island's cultural heritage at risk. (Aerial-Cam Ltd)
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by Brent Bambury

Poet Pablo Neruda called them "severe profiles from the carved crater," but not all of the statues on Easter Island are severe. Some of the iconic sculptures — called moai — wear hats made of red cement, giving the mysterious giant heads a sense of distinction and playfulness.

And they're not just heads. Excavations on the enormous moai have shown that most of them are attached to bodies.

"They're always imagined as heads because the pictures you normally see are the ones that are still buried," Dr. Jane Downes says on Day 6.

Depending on what sea level rises do ... those [statues] could disappear in a catastrophic event, totally.- Dr. Jane Downes

Downes specializes in archaeology and climate change and has spent nearly a decade uncovering the mysteries of the moai on Rapa Nui, the native name for the island.

She may be running out of time.

Some of the partially-buried moai on the hillside of the Rano Raraku volcano on Easter Island. (MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

Rapu Nui, along with other islands in the Pacific, is facing enormous pressure due to climate change. The moai are threatened by intensifying storms and rising seas. Downes says one of the main sites on the island, Ahu Tongariki, is low-lying and prone to inundation, making its moai particularly vulnerable. She says they may even be taken by the sea.

"There's a prediction that depending on what sea level rises do, that those [statues] could disappear in a catastrophic event, totally."

Even without a catastrophe, erosion on Rapa Nui is continuous and ongoing.

"There are sites that are being damaged and are falling into the sea as we speak, and some of those probably won't last too much longer," she says.

"To me as an archaeologist, it's tragic, and I absolutely can't describe the sense of sadness that I feel when I see things literally being pulled and torn into the sea."

The moai statues of Easter Island are located near the shores of Easter Island, putting them at greater risk of erosion. (Aerial-Cam Ltd.)

Monolithic moai

There are nearly 1,000 moai on Rapa Nui, most of them located along the coast.

"I think you just imagine there will just be a few of these monuments,'" Downes says. "But the island is literally littered with them."

"You can see pictures of the statues in lots of books and magazines, but I don't think anything prepares you for actually being there and standing next to them — because, for a start, they're absolutely immense."

Moai statues sit atop an ahu (platform) on Easter Island, Chile. (Aerial-Cam Ltd.)

Downes is a professor of archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Along with her climate change research, she studies the platforms the moai were placed on when they were carved between 1000 and 1600 A.D.

"The island is formed around a large volcano, which is the quarry where the statues are carved," she explains. "When they've been carved, they've been taken out on sacred roads to these platforms all around the island."

The platforms reveal some of the mysteries of the moai, and offer clues about the island's original inhabitants.

The disappearance of some sites' monuments through climate change is inevitable.- Dr. Jane Downes

"The platforms are almost like altars and cemeteries in their own right as well because they incorporate human remains — burials — within them."

But Downes says the platforms are also endangered by the rising seas.

"They're incredibly exposed to the elements, because they are right on the edge of the island," she says.

"They're right situated at the coast, so they're very vulnerable to waves coming in on them, which undermine the platforms that they're situated on and the stonework falls into the sea."

Dr. Jane Downes says climate change is causing increasingly violent storms, escalating erosion along Easter Island's rocky coastline. (Aerial-Cam Ltd.)

Few options

Downes says the livelihood of the people who live on Rapa Nui is tied to the moai.

"The economy of the island is very much focused around heritage tourism, you know, people visiting to see the statues."

But while the loss of the moai would be a disaster for the economy, the cultural impact would be worse.

"I think that would be even more devastating, because this is the identity of the island," Downes says.  

"Even though historically many of the population disappeared — through various things that happened through post-contact time — people feel a very strong affinity with these monuments."

According to Dr. Jane Downes, some sites on Easter Island could be totally swept away by a single catastrophic weather event. (Aerial-Cam Ltd.)

Rapa Nui is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but even with global assistance and input, Downes worries there are few options to protect the giant stones.

"Rapa Nui, unlike other islands in the South Pacific, is not surrounded by a coral reef," she says.

"So there's nothing protecting it from the waves and the storm surges, and anything that you put in the sea to protect the island or the sites would be taken away by the strength of the sea there."

Even moving the monuments to safer places on the island is problematic.

"There is a possibility that some could be moved, [but] all this is — well, not contentious, but [it] needs a lot of discussion."

Downes recommends continuing intensive scientific research before climate change takes its toll.

15 Moais, arranged on a perfect line, in the Ahu Tongariki sector of Easter Island, Chile. (HO/AFP/Getty Image)

"I think that something that can be done is to understand sites better before they disappear, because the disappearance of some sites' monuments through climate change is inevitable," she says.

Even as a scientist, Downes says she still experiences a pervasive sense of wonder when she approaches Rapu Nui's silent, ancient sculptures.

"Being a scientist, you think you can work things out or, you know, have ideas and theories. But that kind of leaves you for a bit because you just think: 'How did they do this? And why?'

It's hard to describe the emotion you feel when you actually stand by them."

Moai statues stand against the light on Easter Island. (AFP/Getty Images)

To hear the full interview with Dr. Jane Downes, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.