80 percent of opal mining capital Coober Pedy’s population of ~2,500 lives underground. Against extreme climate odds, the citizens of one of Australia’s driest towns are a symbol of human adaptation to the inhabitable.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALEX LOCKETT
WORDS BY SARA ZION
Human civilizations have generally avoided the corners of the Earth with consistently severe weather conditions—at least for as long as possible against a rapidly heating world—not just for comfort, but survival. As a result, modern societies have evolved to exist with a seemingly unfathomable number of people living in relatively close proximity to one another, often manipulating the land beyond recognition and depleting natural resources in the process. But, as urban populations expand globally and horizons once dominated by trees and plant life make way for skyscrapers and superhighways, there’s much to learn by observing communities around the world and their positive and negative relationships with where they’ve landed.
Take Coober Pedy, for instance, a remote town in South Australia about 526 miles northwest of Adelaide that provides a unique example of residents both profiting off of—and destroying—local ecosystems, while still attempting to live in harmony with and rebuild them.
Known to many as the opal mining capital of the world, Coober Pedy has a brief but curious history: the 1915 finding of the precious gemstone in the region was an accidental find by a 14-year old boy. Before the arrival of European settlers, the area was home to nomadic aboriginal hunter-gatherers, including the Yankunytjatjara, Anangu, Arabana, Lower Arrernte, Antikirinya, and Pitjantjatjara people, whose courses were dictated by the presence of water. In fact, the name Coober Pedy derives from the aborigine’s words kupa piti, which has been roughly translated as “boy’s waterhole” (or “white man in a hole” and “whitefellow burrow”). Over the next 100+ years, the secluded Outback town would experience an opal rush and see its population go from a few hundred to several thousand—and the subsequent development of an entire civilization living in abandoned dugouts.
Locals speak nostalgically of the height of the opal mining days in Coober Pedy, remembering a vibrant corner of the continent complete with 24-hour bars and restaurants and a multinational cast of characters hoping to strike it rich. As mining techniques have advanced and safety precautions take higher priority, the industry has also become more costly to operate, causing a population decline as the mining workforce decays and miners retreat back to the comforts of more traditional life.
Despite the demand from collectors, jewelry designers, and consumers around the world, the mining of the gemstone itself has taken a toll on the land in which it forms. One concern is the manmade mounds of the dry earth that dot the landscape of the town and its surrounding area, remnants of the excavation of some one million makeshift mines. The mines are supposed to be filled in once a mining site has run dry, but many remain empty, posing a hazard for humans and animals alike. Soil erosion and compaction caused by the machinery used to drill holes in the earth while hunting for opal is another issue. Over time, compacted soil impedes water drainage and hinders the movement of natural gases that pass through the dirt—eventually leading to weakened or rotting root systems of the trees and plants that rely on the delicate balance for nutrients and foundational stability. In recent years, tree planting initiatives have been implemented, presumably in an effort to encourage wildlife to return to the region by adding shade, shelter, and vegetation to the landscape. Australia holds the world record for mammal extinction since the arrival of European settlers.
Its current residents, however, insist that their environmental impact is of great concern to their daily choices and way of life and have pioneered new and innovative ways of living in harmony with the land and fostering industry-community relationships. Recent environmental additions to the community include the first 150k watt wind turbine in South Australia in 1991 (since decommissioned and replaced with more advanced wind turbines) and the Coober Pedy Hybrid Renewable Power Station to harness naturally-occurring and renewable energy sources as the local government looks to the future of the region and sustainable available resources. Perhaps the most impactful, though, isn’t a piece of machinery—but the community’s turning of abandoned mine shafts into underground homes.
These ‘dugouts,’ as locals call them, offer more than just a (dirt) roof overhead: they provide natural relief from the scorching days and freezing nights of the desert above. With the temperature in Coober Pedy routinely exceeding one 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and dropping below freezing overnight at certain points during the year, residents could easily spend a fortune on heating and cooling in a traditional home—but instead of turning to gas or electric heating and cooling methods, the people of Coober Pedy take advantage of the natural climate control that subterranean life provides. By living underground, they are able to maintain healthy indoor temperatures between 73 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit year round.
The efforts of each member of society are what make underground life in Coober Pedy possible: be it providing large-scale support for the town’s wind and solar energy plant, installing independent solar heating water systems on roofs, or living independently off-the-grid and engineering DIY battery systems. All of these various acts, as well as the effects of opal mining on the desert terrain itself, serve as a reminder that every individual plays a part in the maintenance and support of an ecosystem—that all of our actions, even those that may seem insignificant, contribute to the flourish or collapse of our corner of the planet.