Climate Change in the Galapagos Islands
The year 2016 is predicted to be the hottest year on record and has already seen a devastating series of climatic events, including torrential rains and severe droughts. This is in part due to the ever-growing influence of climate change, but is also a result of the natural event, El Niño. However, as we share concern for the millions displaced by flooding and awe at those strolling outside in a light jacket in the ‘bleak’ Chicago winter, we tend to forget about other lives that are threatened by the changing weather, specifically the delicate ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands.
Expected Effects on the Galapagos Islands
Experts predict global temperatures to rise two to six degrees centigrade over the next century. This would leave a heavy burden on the Islands, with scientists predicting increased sea levels, temperatures, rainfall and ocean acidification, and in turn, changes in habitat and patterns of land use, ocean upwelling, and shifts in nesting behavior and physiology.
However, there is no way to be certain of the extent of the impact that climate change will have on the islands. Continual volcanic activity on the islands is likely to cause some islands to rise further above the waves or fall back into the ocean, and there is likewise little certainty on the relationship between the expected regional changes that most models foresee and their local effect on the Galapagos. However, as noted in previous blogs, the ocean temperatures, climate, and plants and animals on the archipelago are all intricately connected, and so we have reason to believe that the park will be at risk in the coming years, including a potential loss in biodiversity.
Climate Change and El Niño
Life in the Galapagos Islands is accustomed to climate fluctuations and, to a certain degree, has even grown resistant to these alterations. Instead, the threat that climate change bears is the degree to which these alterations will occur. Conclusions on this subject remain cloudy, but experts generally agree that El Niño events will increase in intensity and/or frequency.
Recent research shows that the intensity of El Niño has increased by approximately 20% over the course of the 20th century. However, there is no conclusive evidence as to the cause of this increase. Some experts attribute it to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, while others believe that the warmer climate consequently increases the effect of El Niño. On the other hand, some state that there is not enough evidence to prove that this is an enduring pattern, and it is impossible to form any conclusions on it.
One recent study revealed that it is unlikely that the number of El Niño events will increase; however, it is probable that particularly strong “super” El Niños will occur twice as frequently. This would result in one extreme El Niño approximately every decade instead of every twenty years, as is the case with current weather conditions. This is largely due to the archipelago’s location along the equator and the fact that the eastern equatorial Pacific warms faster than the surrounding regions, thus facilitating maximum sea surface temperatures and setting the stage for super El Niños.
Super El Niños and the Galapagos
As was previously mentioned, life in the Galapagos has evolved to resist El Niño; however, if these fluctuations increase in frequency and/or intensity, as seems to be the case, it could extend beyond the coping abilities of the Galapagos ecosystem, and it is likely that several species would be unable to sufficiently recover between each super El Niño.
Efforts to counteract the change
Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, plans are being made to face these potential changes and reinforce the resilience of Galapagos biodiversity just in case. The Charles Darwin Foundation launched the Galapagos Climate Change Initiative, and similarly the World Wildlife Fund, Galapagos National Park and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment completed the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of the Galapagos Islands. These projects intend to build an extensive understanding of the relationship between climate, biodiversity and humanity, and analyze the extent to which Galapagos biota can adapt to the changes resulting from a warming planet. Scientists will then be able to prioritize vulnerable species and consider ways to manage human-caused threats to the archipelago.
However, the findings of this initiative are meant to be applied to all natural ecosystems in order to reinforce their resilience and reduce human stress during extreme ENSO events. Scientists also hope to use the Galapagos as a life-size laboratory to better understand the threat of global warming, taking advantage of the climate fluctuations resulting from those events. This initiative will help us to understand the true footprint we leave on our planet and what it means.