Taking the title for the hottest year on record, 2016 has seen a wide range of climatic disasters, from severe droughts to torrential rains. While this is partly due to the rising effect of climate change, it is also influenced by El Niño, which opened the year. Yet, as we awe at record-breaking heat during a typically frigid Canadian winter and share concern for the millions displaced by flooding, we overlook the effect on the Galapagos Islands as its delicate ecosystem is thrown off balance. Learn about the climate change and el Niño in Galapagos.
Climate change in the Galapagos Islands
Experts predict the global temperature will increase by two to six degrees centigrade by the end of the century, which, no matter what, will place a heavy burden on all life on the planet. It is impossible to predict the impact increasing temperatures will have on life in the islands due to factors such as volcanic activity, which causes the islands to rise or fall in altitude; furthermore, experts are as-of-yet unable to predict the connection between expected regional changes and their local effect on the Galapagos. However, with experts predicting increasing temperatures, sea levels, ocean acidification and rainfall in general, the delicate balance between the climate, ocean temperatures, and plants and animals on the Galapagos Islands can easily be offset, creating reason to believe the national park is going to be at increased risk in the coming years with a possible loss of biodiversity.
Climate change and El Niño in Galapagos
‘Super’ El Niños, as they have come to be called, have been occurring with increased frequency in the Pacific region, and studies show that the intensity of El Niños has increased by around 20% since the beginning of the 20th century. The scientific community can give no conclusive reasoning for this increase. While some scientists believe it is attributable to an increase in greenhouse gases, others think it is related to increasing temperatures, and others still hold the stance that there is no proof that the increasing Super El Niño events is an enduring pattern; thus, no conclusions have been specifically formed.
Nonetheless, it is generally accepted that El Niño events will increase in strength and/or frequency. A recent study concluded that the number of El Niño events are unlikely to increase, but that Super El Niños are to become twice as common; in other words, one extreme El Niño event could occur every ten years instead of every twenty as is the current pattern. The probability of this happening is due to the location of the Galapagos in the eastern equatorial Pacific. Ocean temperatures in this region increase at a more rapid rate than the surrounding water temperatures, increasing the likelihood of exceptionally high sea surface temperatures and thus, the likelihood of Super El Niños.
(Climate change + El Niño) + Galapagos =…??
The Galapagos Islands are not a stranger to climatic fluctuations. Life has evolved alongside El Niño in Galapagos events since recorded history and to a certain extent, has even evolved to withstand such climate alterations. However, like anything, the islands can only take so much battering before they begin to give in, and the climate oscillation is still trying on the ecosystem. If ENSOs increase in strength and/or frequency as predicted, it could very well push many Galapagos species past their ability to cope, without sufficient time to recover in between oscillations. At the very least, this would most likely result in changes in habitat and patterns of land use, reductions in ocean upwelling, and shifts in nesting behavior and physiology.
Time to take action
Although there is no conclusive evidence on this issue, all signs point towards increasing threats for the Galapagos, and that is enough for many to get to work. A variety of groups and organizations are working to encourage resilience among life in the islands. The Charles Darwin Foundation has initiated a Galapagos Climate Change Initiative, and a comprehensive effort is being made by the Galapagos National Park, the World Wildlife Fund and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment through the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of the Galapagos Islands. The aim of these endeavors is to adequately understand the relationship between biodiversity, humanity and climate, and then evaluate the extent that plants and animals in the Galapagos Archipelago can adapt to our warming planet. In this way, it will be possible to understand which species are in most danger and how they can be assisted.
On a wider scale, it is hoped that the work from these projects will be extended to all natural ecosystems so that manmade stress on these environments can be minimized during both Super El Niños and global warming on a general scale. Once again, studies conducted in this living laboratory may be applied to life globally to better understand the threat of global warming not just from ENSO events but also from human causes.