NASA Spacecraft Captures Images of Easter Island Fire That Burned Ancient Statues

by Taylor Cunningham
(Photo by John Milner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The massive fire that engulfed Easter Island’s famous moai statues on October 5 left scorched marks that can still be seen from NASA’s Landsat 9 spacecraft.

The flames covered about 100 hectares of land near the extinct volcanic crater, Rano Raraku. And NASA recently published pictures captured from Landsat 9 that show giant spots of burned grassy hills.

In a tweet by NASA Earth, one photo shows exactly where the burn scars are visible from the cosmos. We can see them as dark brown spots surrounded by varying colors of green.

Easter Island sits about 2,200 miles west of Chile. And it’s home to 1,000 moai statues, which are giant heads that the ancient Rapa Nui people carved out of volcanic between 1250 and 1500 as a way of honoring deceased chieftains.

The tiny 63.2 square mile island is home to around 7,750 people. And according to Edmundo Edwards, the director of the Rapanui Planetarium Foundation, someone likely started the fire intentionally.

“Since the time when the island was a sheep ranch in the early 1900s, it was customary to burn the dry grass so its new sprouts would provide good feed for sheep and cattle,” he told Newsweek. “This was customarily done around June-July, just before the winter rains and when there was a heavy wind. So the fire would sweep across the land. And thus, the grass rootlets would be saved and sprout with the first rain.”

Edwards said that ranchers continue to burn the land, but it is now “forbidden when cattle feed becomes scarce.”

“This is no doubt the origins of this fire,” he added. “But no one claims to have caused it.”

Dozens of Moai Statues Damaged During Easter Island Fire

Around 80 of the treasured moai statues were damaged by the fire. And Edwards believes that the delicate rock, which is made of consolidated ash called lapilli tuff, is the reason they were so easily affected.

“As none of these statues located in Rano Raraku has been treated to control the erosion, which affects the surface of the statues due to a natural process which affects tuff, as it gradually erodes with age and loses the smooth finishing left by its carvers becoming in time grainy and coarse which gradually falls off,” Edwards explained. “The exposed statue erodes and crumbles while what is buried remains intact. With fire, this process intensifies so it is probable that they might lose a part of their outer surface.”

Experts with UNESCO will soon make a trip to Easter Island to assess the damage. And Edwards hopes they can help protect the statues from future blazes.

“What I remember from the past fires is that their soot-covered surface will disappear with rainfall. And, as mentioned, no doubt erosion will intensify and degrade some of its fine features,” he added. “Let’s hope that they can be treated in time to harden it and control the natural process affecting the tuff from which they are made.”