The highest concentration of rock art in the world could “disappear in 100 years”

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Scientists around the world say the findings of a new report claiming that industrial pollution has no effect on ancient rock art are patently flawed and could have disastrous ramifications.

Rock ecologists Ian MacLeod and Warren Fish recently published an article commissioned by fertilizer maker Yara Pilbara, this suggests that there is no negative impact on the carved rock art of Murujuga from industrial pollution.

However, many other scientists believe their findings are wrong.

What is at stake is the 50,000-year-old Natural Rock Art Gallery of Western Australia with over one million petroglyphs at Murujuga, also known as the Burrup Peninsula.

Murujuga contains the highest concentration of ancient rock carvings in the world, some of which are believed to represent the earliest known representations of the human face.

They are said to capture over 50,000 years of Indigenous spiritual knowledge and beliefs.

But on the doorstep of Murujuga are the ever-expanding operations of Woodside Petroleum, Rio Tinto and Yara Pilbara – with the area designated to become one of the largest industrial centers in the southern hemisphere.

Ancient Aboriginal rock art on the Burrup Peninsula.(Provided: Alex Leach)

Rock art could “go away in 100 years”

To refute the claims of Ian MacLeod and Warren Fish, seven world-renowned scientists have compiled four years of research prove that the ancient rock art of Murujuga is threatened by industrial pollution.

University of Western Australia World Rock Art Professor Benjamin Smith led the research and said it was important to get the facts right.

Nitrogen oxides, released from industrial activity, settle on rocks in the form of dust, which then mix with rain and dew to form acids that degrade the patina, a varnish that coats the rocks in which the engravings are engraved.

Professor Smith said that over time the patina would be dissolved by the acid and the petroglyphs would be lost permanently.

What is in question is the rate of acceleration of the decline caused by industrial pollution.

Professor Smith said he was not sure of an exact point of no return for the rocks, but believed it was imminent.

“The emissions from Woodside and Yara are enough, we know, to start eroding the manganese and iron on the rock surface,” he said.

“What we’re trying to determine is how quickly they degrade.

rock formation with blue sky in the background.
The rocks of Murujuga National Park contain the highest concentration of petroglyphs in the world.(ABC Pilbara: James Liveris)

Among the team of scientists who contributed to Professor Smith’s article were Petroglyph Specialist Professor John Black from the University of Western Australia, Dr Stéphane Hœrlé from the University of Bordeaux in France and Dr Thorsten Geisler from the University of Bonn, Germany.

“Juukan Gorge in Slow Motion”

The WA Conservation Council believes that Woodside’s proposed expansion for Burrup Hub LNG would further exacerbate the precarious future of rock art.

The development of the Scarborough gas field, worth $ 16 billion, is expected to produce 3.31 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.

The council’s legal and political director, Piers Verstegen, said the long-term impact of the expansion project was of greatest concern.

Bald man speaks at a press conference
Conservation Council of Western Australia director Piers Verstegen said mining giants have no respect for cultural heritage.(ABC News: James Carmody)

“Woodside’s plans to further develop gas production would add significant amounts of new emissions and new pollution,” Mr. Verstegen said.

“It’s almost a case of Juukan Gorge in slow motion.

“We are building on the Section 18 approvals that were provided many years ago, and we have traditional owners who are compelled to speak up.”

Two photos of a cave.  One covered with spinifex and sme trees, the other from the same cave but without vegetation
The Juukan Gorge caves in Pilbara de WA in 2013 (L) and after land clearance (R) in 2020 before the site was blasted.(Provided by the folks at PKKP.)

The controversial conclusions

In 2016, Dr MacLeod, a conservation scientist whose career at the WA Maritime Museum has spanned almost 40 years, told the ABC that he was “sure night follows day” that the increase emissions would hasten the disappearance of rock art in Murujuga.

Red rocks with engravings at the Burrup Peninsula, with a burning gas derrick in the background
Red rocks with engravings at the Burrup Peninsula, with a burning gas derrick in the background(Provided: Alex Leach)

But now, five years later, Dr. MacLeod estimates that he has over 1,385 separate rock pH readings to his credit, with evidence to the contrary.

“A model is emerging that it is largely controlled by the natural environment and the impact of human-made emissions appears to be stable and is certainly not worsening,” said Dr MacLeod.

However, Dr MacLeod said he couldn’t deny that there was some supporting evidence that industrial activity was causing acid emissions that could impact rock art.

Industry and government response

Environment Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said the WA government is committed to protecting the rock art in Murujuga through a series of measures.

“We are also considering other measures, including limiting the land available for industrial development.”

A gas plant lit up at night
The Woodside Pluto LNG plant is located at the gates of Murujuga National Park.(Provided: Woodside)

A spokesperson for Woodside said the company’s growth plans were informed by archaeological and ethnographic surveys, consultations with traditional custodians and the development of cultural heritage management plans.

“No impact is expected at the sites identified by these surveys,” said Woodside spokesperson.

Yara Pilbara said she has maintained an annual rock art monitoring program using independent experts for the past five years.

“The analysis undertaken by the independent experts concluded that there is currently no negative impact on the rock carvings from Yara Pilbara’s operations,” said a spokesperson for Yara.


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