Ancient Buddhist murals and statues in caves along China’s Silk Road are under “direct threat” from extreme rainfall brought by climate change, researchers have found.
Dating back to the 4th century, the Dunhuang cave temples in the northwestern province of Gansu have withstood wars, earthquakes, sandstorms and vandalism for more than a millennium.
But now, changing weather patterns in the desert are posing significant damage to the fragile wall paintings and sculptures – including at the famous Mogao Grotto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to a report released Monday by Greenpeace.
“Gansu is famous for its caves and the art stored inside them for centuries,” said Li Zhao, a senior researcher in Greenpeace East Asia’s Beijing office. “Increased bouts of rainfall in the desert pose an acute risk. Spikes in humidity, flash floods, and cave ins are already happening.”
Over the past two decades, Gansu has seen an increase in total rainfall but a drop in the number of rainy days, resulting in more bouts of intense downpours. Temperatures in the province have also been rising faster than the global average, according to the report.
The artworks in some caves, including the Mogao Grotto, have already shown signs of deterioration. And some artifacts could be gone in a few years, the report warned.
Rising humidity has accelerated the crystallization and build up of salt on the murals’ surface, causing them to flake and peel. Rainwater leaks have also eroded the paintings, while flash floods and mudslides caused some caves to collapse, the report added.
The report comes as China is conducting its fourth nationwide cultural heritage survey to log the state of the country’s historical artifacts.
But Li warned that by the time the survey is completed, some of Gansu’s precious artifacts could already be gone.
“While we’re still working to document, understand, and conserve these pieces of our history, they’re dissolved before our very eyes. This is a painful reality of the impact of climate change,” Li said.