The Writing’s on the Wall: Graffiti Discovered in Chinese Cave Tells Story of 500 Years of Climate Change

A team of researchers from all over the world, including many scientists from the University of Cambridge, recently discovered “graffiti” on a cave wall in central China that describes the effects that several droughts over the past 500 years had on the local population, telling a story of the impact of climate change that spans several centuries.

500 Years of Climate Change

The inscriptions on the wall of the cave tell the story of seven particular drought events in central China between the years 1520 and 1920. They were found in Dayu Cave, which is found in the Qinling Mountains in the central China region. The writings say that people would go to the cave to collect water and pray for rain when droughts struck the region. One account from 1891 tells the story of how the local mayor, Huaizong Zhu, led over 200 people into the cave to collect water, while a local fortune teller by the name of Zhenrong Ran prayed for rain during the collection. In another story written in the cave wall, in the year 1528, a drought occurred and two people by the names of Gui Jiang and Sishan Jiang went to Da’an town to visit the Dragon Lake found inside Dayu Cave. While the cave wall writings only offer brief recollections of seemingly inconsequential details during the drought events, history helps fill in other details of this climate change story. In the 1528 drought, for example, widespread starvation resulted from the drought, and instances of cannibalism were reported.

Historical and Geological Comparisons

The study marks the first time that researchers were able to compare historical and geological records from the same cave in one place. In addition to recording the cave wall inscriptions telling the centuries-long climate change story, researchers removed sections of the formations in the cave and analyzed the elements and isotopes found inside them. What they found was that periods of drought had strong correlations to large concentrations of certain elements in the fragments.

This data was then cross-referenced with the story told by the writings on the cave wall to verify the effects of the drought. The scientists discovered that lower rainfall levels corresponded with higher carbon and oxygen isotope ratios. They then used the data gathered to provide a model of what the region’s precipitation will be like in the future, starting with the year 1982.

The Dangers of Climate Change

The model they created matched up with a drought that occurred in the area in the 1990s, and suggests that another drought is on its way in the 2030s. The results of their findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports, and truly emphasize the importance of taking action and figuring out strategies to deal with regions that are more prone to droughts. It is now known that severe weather conditions brought on by climate change place the world at higher threat of experiencing food shocks, and areas which are more likely to experience droughts are especially in danger of experiencing mass starvation as a result of the loss of local produce and a sharp spike in food prices. Furthermore, humans continue to exhaust the Earth’s natural resources at a rate that the planet cannot keep up with, which further intensifies climate change. The inscriptions on the cave wall in central China provide but a glimpse of what is to come for the near future. If proper action is not taken to rectify the damage that the human race is doing to the earth, climate change effects will continue to intensify until there really will be no way out of the mess we helped to create.


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