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Life in oceans, rivers and seas

“Over the many thousands of years that the Murujuga rock art was being etched into the ancient rock, the local indigenous people preserved these engravings of animals and ceremony of countless generations. Now we destroy them". Peter Hylands

Peter and Andrea Hylands

May 13, 2024

Images above: Landing image, dead forest in the Gariwerd National Park, Victoria, below landing image, Liverpool River at sunset, Arnhem Land

“Many world leaders expressed relief at - or alluded to - the fact Australia had a new leader who appeared serious on climate change”. BBC News

Australia is one of the world's largest exporters of liquefied natural gas.

“Australia has announced it will ramp up its extraction and use of gas until "2050 and beyond", despite global calls to phase out fossil fuels”. BBC News

Hard to shift old habits, one disaster after another, and Australian Governments clearly lack the comprehension of just how serious our situation is. So to May 2024 and a press release from its Commonwealth Government:

“The Australian Government has released a medium and long-term strategy that establishes the role gas will play in the transition to net zero by 2050, securing affordable gas for Australia as we move to a more renewable grid, and confirming our commitment to being a reliable trading partner. Gas plays a crucial role in supporting our economy, with the sector employing 20,000 people across the country, including remote and regional communities,” Minister King said.

At the end of this story I write about our long held concerns about some of the likely impacts of climate change that are almost too frightening to contemplate, meanwhile back to the Murujuga.

Small valley in the Murujuga

Now decades ago, and with our close connections to Japan, we discovered a newspaper article which tells about a gift to a Japanese business person of ancient rock art from the Murujuga in Western Australia. We were stunned, when we started to investigate what was going on, what we discovered was extraordinary. That was the mass destruction of very ancient rock art to make way for industrial activity, much involving gas processing and storage. Our attention was of course unwelcome with the usual attempts to block our research.

“I have always considered the Murujuga and its rock art to be one of human society’s most important cultural sites. In one sense I think of the Murujuga as a barometer of the human condition. If we can destroy our cultural heritage, that is our past and our present, we have the capacity to destroy the future; a future that belongs to others, the future generations of this world”. Peter Hylands

On a visit to the Murujuga many years ago, our small party included Sylvia Hallam, the eminent Australian Archaeologist, Carmen Lawrence, Premier of Western Australia from1990 -1993, Robin Chapple (Western Australian Greens MP), Stephen Bennetts from the University of Western Australia and Ken Mulvaney from the University of New England in New South Wales.

We stood in our small and twisting valley, the ancient rocks piled high on either side of us, the hair on the back of our necks standing up in awe at what was in front of us.

There, peering back at us from deep time, a face, an image, probably the oldest representation of a human face on earth. There it was – carved in the rock before us, so many thousands of years earlier.

“Before sea levels rose in response to global warming at the end of the last ice age, the hills of what is now the Dampier Archipelago, were uplands 150 kilometers from the sea. Australia’s ‘archaic faces’ lie in small clusters in a very few remote valleys hidden in widely spaced massifs; the Burrup, the Durba Hills, the Calvert Range and the Cleland Hills, focal places of ceremony and symbolism, sparsely scattered across 1,700 hundred arid kilometers”. Dr Sylvia Hallam
“The Burrup valley provides a glimpse of a time when early colonisers moved through an interior, once less dry, linking significant nodes into a nexus of ceremony, symbolism and myth stretching across the continent. They managed to preserve these connections through the times of greatest aridity, around 20,000 years ago. The Burrup allows us to follow the processes of adaptation as sea levels rose, marine resources from warm shallow seas enriched subsistence, and populations increased. More people engraved a diversity of new motifs, in increasing numbers and rapidly changing styles over more and more localities, on what had become a group of islands. Sacred and secular activity on these islands ceased only with the advent of new colonists, pastoralists and pearlers”. Dr Sylvia Hallam
“The waves first broke on the shores of Murujuga, now the Dampier Archipelago, some 7,000 years ago. The encroaching seas, rising after the last great Ice Age, heralded a shift in the resources available to the inhabitants and the way in which they portrayed their society and environment". Ken Mulvaney

The air we breathe

As Voyager 1 and 2 track through interstellar space ever further from the Earth they leave behind them in the darkened sky our beautiful living Planet Earth with its incredible complexity.

“There is now a great distance between how we can live on Planet Earth and how we are now living on Planet Earth. Humanity will come to understand this is a very bad idea indeed. It is clear that our climate is no longer stable and is beginning to warm rapidly. Scientists now agree that human activity, rather than any natural progress, is the primary cause of the accelerated global warming. Agriculture, urbanisation, deforestation and pollution have caused extraordinary changes on Earth”. Natural History Museum, London

We should remember that before photosynthesis evolved on Earth there was no free oxygen in the atmosphere. The maximum content of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere was around 35 per cent, a level reached towards the end of the Carboniferous period. After photosynthesis had done its work, Oxygen levels have been between 15 and 35 percent, today they are at 21 per cent. Oxygen content of the atmosphere fluctuates over time and impacts evolution of life on Earth.

“Oxygen makes up one-fifth of the air we breathe, but it’s the most vital component – and it does seem to be declining. The main cause is the burning of fossil fuels, which consumes free oxygen”. BBC

Oceans lead the way with growing dead zones, these are places where almost nothing survives and they are growing because of the loss of dissolved oxygen in our seas and oceans. Once more common along polluted coastlines, dead zones are now found in oceans and far from shore.

Oxygen is produced in our oceans, most by plankton, and this accounts for about 50 per cent and sustains life in our seas and oceans. The rest occurs on land. Climate change impact on the ocean incudes increasing levels of acidity which are a threat to the marine life that produces oxygen and on land we continue to destroy plant life. Australia remains a land clearing and deforestation hotspot. Some of the air we breathe is an accumulation of oxygen produced long ago.

The ground we walk on

The Earth’s tectonic plate system is complex and we have been concerned for a very long time about the impact on these plates of ice melt occurring on both poles. Apart from the obvious and much discussed issues, very large shifts in weight across our planet’s surface and the melting of prehistoric ice are likely to have a significant impact on how the geological Earth functions, including changing the way plates behave.

If you know about the history of tectonic plates you might begin to worry.


The pace of change is the issue, not only for life on Earth, but for Earth systems as well. We all think about biodiversity loss and the obvious impacts of climate change, particularly when we are directly involved.

If it is the case that we are having a major impact on the Earth's systems that sustain us, and still nothing changes in relation to the way we behave, then what?

At least some of those answers lie in the broken rocks of the Murujuga.

Murujuga rock art: image Robin Chapple

Murujuga: Andrea Hylands