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Moai statues, Rapa Nui
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Rising sea levels are threatening Easter Island’s famous moai statues

Flooding and erosion could cause the monuments to collapse

Ed Cunningham
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Ed Cunningham

Everyone knows and loves the moai of Rapa Nui (otherwise known as Easter Island). After all, how could you not? Those monolithic rock figures are both marvels of human engineering and phenomenal works of art. Ranging from two to 20 metres in height, Rapa Nui’s 900 moai are an incredible sight (Unesco World Heritage approved, no less) but, thanks to climate change, many of them could soon be under threat.

The sea levels around Rapa Nui are rising, increasing the likelihood of flooding during storms and adverse weather events. Flooding and coastal erosion are then causing the moai to be pulled away from their bases, which could eventually cause the monuments to partially or even totally collapse.

But it isn’t just the moai that are under threat. The very way of life of Rapa Nui’s indigenous people is also threatened by global warming. According to Bloomberg, the island is suffering from drastically reduced levels of rainfall – receiving just 992 millilitres in 2020, compared with 1,311ml in 1991. If rainfall declines much further, life for its 8,000 inhabitants could become very difficult indeed.

So what can be done to protect the Moai and help Rapa Nui’s indigenous population? Well, some steps have already been taken. A sea wall has been built to preserve the moai at one location, Ahu Runga Va’e, while the Chilean government has worked with scientists to put in place a wider climate action plan. 

Many more sea walls will almost certainly be needed to protect the rest of the moai, but the pandemic has set back funding. Covid also took away much of the island’s main source of income – tourism – leaving it in a pretty tough spot. It probably doesn’t help that the Polynesian island is governed as a ‘special territory’ of Chile, which is more than 2,300 miles away.

Climate change is predicted to affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable the most – and Rapa Nui is further proof of that. Despite contributing essentially nothing to global warming, the island’s indigenous population is suffering because of it. Now it’s up to the rest of us to fend off global warming and slow the rise of sea levels before it’s too late.

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