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World’s Oldest Cave Paintings Are Fading?Climate Change May Be to Blame

World’s Oldest Cave Paintings Are Fading—Climate Change May Be to Blame

Repeated shifts between wet and dry conditions boost the growth of salt crystals that destabilize the rock canvas

Some of the oldest art in human history is disintegrating, scientists say. And climate change may be hastening its demise.

New research reports that ancient rock art in Indonesian caves is degrading over time, as bits of rock slowly flake away from the walls. It's a tremendous loss for human history — some of these paintings, which depict everything from animals to human figures to abstract symbols, date back about 40,000 years.

Salt crystals building up on the walls are a key part of the problem, the study suggests. These salt deposits seep into the cave walls, then proceed to expand and contract as temperatures rise and fall. This process causes the rock to slowly disintegrate.

Changes in the weather may be helping the process along, scientists say.

Salt crystals may expand more readily when they're exposed to repeated shifts between wet, humid conditions and periods of prolonged drought. Indonesia is already a dynamic region to begin with, split between the rainy monsoon season and the annual dry season. But these kinds of shifts are expected to become more dramatic as the climate continues to warm.

In particular, the researchers say, climate change may spur more intense El Niño events in the future. These events can amplify the kinds of conditions that help the damaging salt crystals form.

Scientists are still debating the exact influence of climate change on El Niño, a natural climate cycle that drives shifting patterns of warming and cooling in the Pacific Ocean.

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