Robust science, the precautionary principle, and Western Australian petroglyphs

by Carley Fuller, 20th December at 10:05 AM

*All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.


The trailer for Connection to Country, dir. Tyson Mowarin

Two weeks into my MSc program, I cycled to North Hobart’s State Cinema for a documentary screening. I was keen to see the historic cinema, some stunning aerial drone videography shot in Western Australia, and Bob Brown, who was slotted to speak after the film – a legend of Tasmanian environmental activism. I knew nothing about the documentary’s subject, Murujuga (this indigenous place name was replaced with “the Burrup Peninsula” in 1979) but what I learned was relevant to the DEEP group, especially to those of us involved with the Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage.

Murujuga, composed of the Burrup Peninsula and Dampier Archipelago, contains the largest and oldest known rock art gallery on the planet; the region is estimated to contain up to a million petroglyphs, some over 30,000 years old – predating the end of the last ice age. Researchers have determined how these petroglyphs have survived so long: their extraordinarily low erosion rates were the result of the combination of resistant rocks, low relief, and low rainfall.  The same researchers found that some petroglyphs could possibly be preserved for up to 60,000 years (Pillans & Fifield, 2013).

The ancient engravings depict species still found in the area, including kangaroos, echidnas, birds, turtles, fish, and crustaceans. Fascinatingly, there are also depictions of extinct species, including the thylacine (McDonald and Veth, 2005; Vinnicombe, 2002). The petroglyphs can be dated to provide valuable insight into the changes in biota over many thousands of years.


Striped animal, thought to be a thylacine
(Tasmanian tiger), extinct for about 3000 years
in the Pilbara (Bird & Hallam, 2006)

The film stressed that in addition to ecological insights, the rock art gallery and surroundings are of immense cultural importance. The traditional owners of the land are the Ngarda-Ngarli, and the documentary, “Connection to Country,” was produced by an Aboriginal community organiser. Despite a history of enslavement and massacres carried out by European pearlers, whalers, and pastoralists, the Ngarda-Ngarli are still actively pressing for recognition of their cultural responsibility for country (Australian Heritage Database).

Increasingly at odds with this concept of Aboriginal stewardship, industrial development on the peninsula has intensified over the past decades; there is infrastructure in place for liquefied natural gas, iron ore shipping, and fertiliser production. According to the documentary, this industrial development has resulted in threats to the petroglyphs that have not been properly mitigated, neither by steps to secure UNESCO World Heritage listing nor by robust scientific risk assessment. After the screening, Christine Milne, the Bob Brown Foundation’s special consultant to Murujuga, discussed what she sees as failures by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to properly inform policy with monitoring.

I looked into this alleged botched monitoring by reading a CSIRO report on the monitoring program published this year (Duffy et al., 2017), as well as an independent data analysis consultancy’s review of the report (Henstridge et al, 2017).

CSIRO monitored petroglyphs at seven sites between 2004 to 2014 using colour and reflectance spectroscopy, choosing five southern sites close to industrial production and two northern sites, further from industry. In 2009 CSIRO concluded that the one of the two instruments used was not reliable. This year the overall results of the monitoring were deemed “not fully conclusive,” but nonetheless, within the same report it is concluded that “none of the instruments demonstrates any difference in the rate of change between northern and southern sites” (Duffy et al., 2017) effectively giving a green light to further industrial development.

The consultants’ review of the report, in contrast, affirms that “while the Draft Report demonstrates substantial efforts on the part of the CSIRO to improve the reporting of the data collection and to present better analysis, more needs to be done. In particular, in its current form the Draft Report is unable to dispel what might be described as reasonable concerns about the impact of industry on the rock art” (Henstridge et al, 2017).

The consultants’ findings were echoed by peer-reviewed journal publication by Black et al. that bleakly concluded, “The errors are so great that most of the results in the [CSIRO] reports are worthless. The Western Australian Government remains in a state of knowledge deficit as if no study on colour change and mineralogy has been conducted, despite the large amount of time and money spent. No sound decisions about the effects of industry on the rock art on Murujuga can be made using the reports. This conclusion has political implications for governments because decisions allowing further industrialisation of Murujuga have been made on the assumption that the reports correctly state there has been no change to rock art sites over time and current and proposed concentrations of emissions are unlikely to damage the rock art. These decisions need now to be reconsidered, particularly in relation to the precautionary principle” (2017).

These “concentrations of emissions” were proposed by Yara Pilbara Nitrates Pty Ltd in 2014. Yara has constructed a factory that will produce technical ammonium nitrate explosives for use in iron ore mining, and the operating license is due to be granted within the coming months. There has been public concern, augmented by Christine Milne’s activism, that ammonium nitrate particles that will be released from the factory pose an unacceptable threat to the petroglyphs.

Yara was legally required to fund monitoring of six petroglyphs sites within two kilometres of the plant site. Although Christine Milne was concerned about Yara funding this expanded monitoring, it seems to me that the poor monitoring design occurred before Yara got involved. More troubling than the monitoring program’s problems, I think, is the dubious risk assessment for the new nitrates factory. Instead of carrying out an assessment of the capacity of the Burrup rocks to cope with acid deposition from industry, such as measuring the buffering capacity of the engraved rocks, CSIRO referred to a publication by Cinderby et al (1998).

One of the authors of said publication, Johan Kuylenstierna of the Stockholm Environment Institute, was reported to have said that “the CSIRO misused his research to support unsuitable advice about atmospheric acid levels. Dr Kuylenstierna has written to a Senate inquiry into protection of the rock art to say the use of his research by the CSIRO ‘to say anything of relevance to the rock art in the Burrup Peninsula is just plain wrong.’” Dr Kuylenstierna stressed that his research used soil maps at a scale of 1:5,000,000, “but the point is that these are soil maps and not geology maps…the method is not based on an assessment of the geology,” Dr Kuylenstierna said (Strom 2017).

The CSIRO nonetheless advised the WA government and industry that “acid deposition to the Burrup area is unlikely to cause any deleterious effects to rock or rock art on the Burrup peninsula” (Strom 2017) because the 1998 study determined the emissions to be safe for the ecosystem at large. Dr Kuylenstiern responded that “If anything, the reverse is true, as more rapid weathering of minerals in the soil leads to better buffering and less damage to ecosystems … the rocks in a highly buffered region would weather faster” (Strom 2017).

In addition to the cultural significance of the petroglyph sites, their potential palaeoecological value is immense. The petroglyphs could provide insight as to how Australia’s biota has responded to climate, landscape change, and human impact over thousands of years. The failure of CSIRO to develop and implement a rigorous risk assessment to date is disappointing, and if the Yara nitrates factory is granted an operating license before risks can be properly assessed, it seems to me that the precautionary principle will have been disregarded outright.



Australian Heritage Database. Listing for Burrup Peninsula, Islands of the Dampier Archipelago. 2006. Accessed 14 December 2017

Bird, C. & Hallam, S. J. (2006) Archaeology and rock art in the Dampier Archipelago. The National Trust of Australia (WA). Retrieved from

Black, J. L., Box, I., & Diffey, S. (2017) Inadequacies of research used to monitor change to rock art and regulate industry on murujuga (‘Burrup Peninsula’), Australia. The Journal of the Australian Rock Art Research Association, 34(2), 130-148. Retrieved from;dn=159248763379298;res=IELIND

Duffy, N., Ramanaidou, E., Alexander, D. & Lau, D. (2017) Burrup Peninsula Aboriginal Petroglyphs: Colour Change &, Spectral Mineralogy 2004–2016. Australia: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Retrieved from–Spectral-Miner.pdf.

Henstridge, J., Haskard, K, & Mehryar, M. (2017) Review of CSIRO Report on Burrup Peninsula Rock Art Monitoring. Australia: Data Analysis Australia Pty Ltd . Retrieved from—May-2017.pdf

McDonald, J. & Veth, P. (2005) Desktop Assessment of Scientific Values for Indigenous Cultural Heritage on the Dampier Archipelago, Western Australia. Unpublished report to the Department of Environment and Heritage. Canberra, Australia.

Pillans, B., & Fifield, L. K. (2013) Erosion rates and weathering history of rock surfaces associated with Aboriginal rock art engravings (petroglyphs) on Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia, from cosmogenic nuclide measurements. Quaternary Science Reviews, 69(Supplement C), 98-106. doi:

Strom, M. (2017, February) “CSIRO errors put 30,000-year-old indigenous rock art at risk.” The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from

Vinnicombe, P. (2002) Petroglyphs of the Dampier Archipelago: Background to Development and Descriptive Analysis. Rock Art Research 19(1): 3-27.

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