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by on December 23, 2020

El Niño and the Galapagos Islands

El Niño. Most have heard the term before, whether it was in your high school science class, the news, or in a skit from the dearly beloved comedian Chris Farley. It has been said that El Niño has been a factor in political revolutions, and caused severe drought and famines in the past. But what does El Niño mean? Where did the terms originate, and what are the implications for the Galapagos Islands? In this article, I jump into the facts and illuminate the powerful relationship between El Niño and the Galapagos Islands, and why they are important to know.

Where did name El Niño come from?

El Niño events are not a recent phenomena. Evidence indicates that the Incas of ancient Peru were known to build stone storehouses on steep hillsides to protect food and supplies from floods that arrived from El Niño events. The term El Niño was coined by fishermen off the coast of the Peruvian port city of Paita. The fishermen recognized a pattern of significant ocean warming in December, coinciding with the disappearance of the large schools of fish they aimed to catch. Why El Niño? El Niño directly  translates to “the little boy” in Spanish. But more importantly, it refers to the new-born Jesus Christ. As the birth of Jesus is widely accepted to occur in December, the event was thus named after this central figure of Christianity.

What is El Niño?

El Niño and the Galapagos Islands - Drought

Extreme drought

The El Niño is a complex phenomenon in which the Pacific Ocean near the equatorial region warms significantly, coinciding with significant changes in the atmosphere. Rainfall rates decline over Indonesia, India and Australia, while rainfall and tropical cyclone formation increase over the tropical Pacific Ocean. The El Niño events are erratic, occurring at irregularly from two to seven years, and lasting anywhere from nine months to two years. These El Niño events cause strange and dramatic activity, and the unpredictive nature makes them even more menacing.

The Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro once noted rainfall in the Peruvian deserts, one of the first recordings of the El Niño event. Researchers make a compelling argument that El Niño events even led to sacrificial rituals in the early Moche civilization. The peoples hoped an offering would cause the torrential downpours to cease. Fascinatingly, researchers contend that the destructive climate shifts during “the Great El Niño” of 1789-83 ” caused severe droughts in France which led to widespread famine, and historic reports illuminate accounts of settlers describing hail as so large that it killed horses. The researchers go on to state these drought conditions and climate changes led to a spike in grain prices, leading to the political strife which caused the French revolution.

El Niño and the Galapagos Islands

The striking difference of El Nino on Cerro Cabezón in Peru

What about El Niño and the Galapagos Islands?

Grand-Queen-Beatriz-Galapagos-Cruise-Highlights-Seal-inspecting-fin-North-Seymour

They can touch, but you can’t!

From the above sections, you can see that El Niño events have the potential to create devastating circumstances for humans, as the ecological balance they depend on is “thrown out of whack.” This is especially so in the Galapagos Islands, a vulnerable ecosystem where endemic animals (those that only live on the Galapagos islands) cannot migrate to the mainland to find a new home. So what exactly happens? To begin, you must understand a bit about the ocean and wind patterns around the pacific ocean.

At a certain depth in the ocean, you hit a zone called the “thermocline.” This is where the temperature abruptly changes, to a layer of calm and cold. It is even visible if you look closely. Below this zone, there is a wealth of nutrients that fall to the seafloor. Typically, these nutrients churn up, providing sustenance to every level of the food chain, from phytoplankton to algae, penguins to whales. As the air pressure changes from El Niño Events, the thermocline is pushed to deeper depths , and the churning of nutrients diminishes significantly. Trade winds that typically carry the nutrient-rich arctic Humboldt current to the Galapagos islands weakens, and sometimes even reverse entirely. Warm water accumulates, increasing the temperature. All this El Niño activity compounds, and nutrient cycling diminished at a significant rate, along with increased rainfall.

What are the impacts of El Niño on the Galapagos ecosystem

According to Galapagos researcher Godfrey Merlen, the 1982-1983 El Niño Event, one of the strongest in 100 years, had disastrous impacts. The event brought 3,264 mm of rain, a ten-fold increase from the typical average of 254 mm. This is in a place classified as a botanical desert! Flooding punished the highland habitats of the giant tortoise. They even prompted the iconic species to abandon their homes for drier coastal areas. Torrential rains swamped the nesting areas of the boobies, destroying many eggs. The emblematic Galapagos waved albatross deserted 60 percent of eggs. With the destruction of entire mattings of algae that marine iguanas depend on, thousands perished. By mid-February of El Niño event, only one of 90 Cape Hammond Fernandina island fur seal pups survived, while starvation took the rest. In 2004, research showed that the penguin population was estimated to be at less than 50% of that before the El Niño event. Below the surface, productive coral reefs were wiped out, bleached from sustained high temperatures, and ecosystems starved from the bottom (phytoplankton) up.

The Galapagos Albatross

I could go on and on with the depressing figures. However, the point isn’t to discourage and sadden. Rather, it is to encourage future travelers to recognize the resilience of the creatures that call Galapagos there home. More so, to promote respect and awe all that the creatures of the islands deserve. The majority of Galapagos creatures are cute, but don’t let that fool you. These cuddly creatures are hardcore survivors. The Galapagos Islands have been around for millions of years. There is plenty of debate surrounding the uncertainty as to when the creatures first arrived, or even how. But one amazing fact we can all acknowledge is that life has have survived and thrived for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years, on a place where all the odds are against their favor. Populations have ebbed and flowed in one of the harshest places, and the El Niño events make life that much harder. Hence, it is even more impressive and inspiring that Galapagos creatures can survive, despite hardship. It is suitable that Darwin was inspired to write about evolution when he encountered the Galapagos islands. The creatures have had to adapt in amazing ways to survive against the hardships. Otherwise, they would likely be long gone.

Do the Galapagos animals recover from El Niño Events?

Since the powerful El Niño event in 1982, Galapagos creatures have been slowly recovering. The historical population of Galapagos tortoises was once 200,000-300,000 tortoises, diminished from poaching, invasive species, and El Niño events. The current population is 10-15% of that. Recovery is a long road for all species. Scientists are working valiantly to help the recovery of as many species as possible. Breeding programs started in 1965 and have since brought seven of eight endangered subspecies back from dangerous population levels. Large colonies of marine and land iguanas bask in the sun, and during penguin monitoring trips in 2017-2018, teams found numerous juvenile penguins (nearly 60% of all penguins observed) in good condition, indicating a successful breeding season. It is my believe that the resilience of animals in the Galapagos will continue to persist, and that humans have a large role to play in assisting their efforts.

How-many-galapagos-tortoises-are-there-baby-tortoise

Rehabilitation efforts by the Charles Darwin research station

The most important takeaway

Beyond being impressed by the creature’s pursuit to survive, an important lesson when visiting the islands is to respect the animals and their ecosystem. Humans have already brought invasive species such as fire ants, cats, dogs, goats, all of which have dramatically impacted Galapagos species. When you visit, respect the animals by watching where you step, stay 2 meters from all animals, pay attention to the signs, and listen carefully to your guide. Underwater, refrain from touching/stepping on the corals, or touching sea turtles as they pass by. As you should know by now, the organisms of the Galapagos islands have enough struggles as is. If you are feeling extra generous, there are plenty of places to donate to research efforts and breeding programs on the Galapagos islands, such as the Charles Darwin foundation and Galapagos conservation. Want to travel to this incredible destination and see evolution in action? Check out our page and speak with our travel experts for more information. Hope you enjoyed this article on El Niño and the Galapagos Islands, come back for more!


About Keenan Ennis

Keenan Ennis studied Conservation and wildlife biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This eventually lead him to a program in Ecuador studying hummingbirds and their keystone nutritional species in the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve. Since, he has worked with the critically endangered Bandurria Andina, or black-faced Ibis of the Andean Páramo. Through his ecological background, he provides an in depth insight into the conservation processes of the Galapagos Islands.

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