Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Rightfully famous for its strangely different flora and fauna, the products of ages of isolation from the mainland of South America and the maybe the seed of inspiration to Charles Darwin’s ideas regarding the evolution of Earth’s plants and animals, the Galápagos Islands are almost exactly on the equator some 600 miles west of Ecuador.
The Galápagos Islands are home to many species, some unique to the Galápagos:
And, not the least if last, the uniquely cute, Equator-spanning, Galápagos Penguins:
The fabled living treasures of this group of islands are threatened, besieged and at risk of disappearing forever long before we have had time to discover all of their secrets.
A beautifully illustrated article in the New York Times, featuring the strikingly evocative photography of Josh Haner, warns us how the Galápagos Islands’ ecological niches and their living legends are endangered.
“As climate change warms the world’s oceans, these islands are a crucible. And scientists are worried. Not only do the Galápagos sit at the intersection of three ocean currents, they are in the cross hairs of one of the world’s most destructive weather patterns, El Niño, which causes rapid, extreme ocean heating across the Eastern Pacific tropics.”
“To see the future of the Galápagos, look to their recent past, when one such event bore down on these islands. Warm El Niño waters blocked the rise of nutrients to the surface of the ocean, which caused widespread starvation.
Large marine iguanas died, while others shrank their skeletons to survive. Seabirds stopped laying eggs. Forests of a giant daisy tree were flattened by storms and thorny invasive bushes took over their territory. Eight of every 10 penguins died and nearly all sea lion pups perished. A fish the length of a pencil, the Galápagos damsel, was never seen again.”
Somehow, this destruction and death may have taken place without it coming to your attention. Certainly, with the Galápagos Islands being rated #5 in the 8 Best Ecotourism Destinations In The World, one wonders how the Galápagos maintain their popularity with all those awful things going on.
This is a very typical example what passes for science journalism today, as the Times continues with:
“That was in 1982. The world’s oceans have warmed at least half a degree Celsius since then.”
Let me try to untangle the web of this mixture of fact and fallacy.
Claim 1: “The world’s oceans have warmed at least half a degree Celsius since then. .” The link is to the Times’ very own really scary story (based on the IPCC’s SR1.5 ) which stated “But as global average temperatures have risen half a degree in that span, these bleaching events [referring to coral bleaching] have become a regular phenomenon.” Let me correct this: ocean temperatures worldwide have not warmed by 0.5°C.
Not 0.5°C but 0.175-0.20°C (errorless degrees of course, NODC/NOAA produce tiny numbers like these with no uncertainty whatever.)
Maybe the author, Nicholas Casey, meant to write sea surface temperature (SST) has risen half a degree? Let’s see what SST looks like at the Galápagos:
On this particular day, 9 March 2019, we see right along the equator off the shore of Ecuador, dark blue (in the little green circle) which represents sea surface temperature between 2 and 3°C (about 5°F) below the 1971-2000 base period.
Caveat: These sea surface temperatures change daily. By sea surface is meant: “Sea Surface Temperature (SST) is defined as the skin temperature (top 2 mm) of the ocean. …. Instruments on satellites now remotely measure SST for the whole world every day.”
Here’s the last year, with images picked out near the beginning of each month.
The SST of the sea surrounding the Galápagos swings over a range of 4 degrees or so during the year. And how about the long term changes?
Annual temperature climatology at the surface ( 1.00 degree grid)
Again, the small circle off the coast of Ecuador shows the location of the Galápagos Islands, sitting just inside the 24°C contour. Comparing the decadal averages we find that there has been no change at the Galápagos since 1955.
The fact of the matter is that sea surface temperatures along the equator between South America and Southeast Asia are driven by the phenomena called ENSO — El Niño–Southern Oscillation. Those readers not familiar with the ENSO can watch this short 2 minute video (opens in a new tab or window).
The event referred to in the Times is the 1982 major El Niño event which temporarily shut down the upwelling of cooler nutrient rich waters that feed the diverse aquatic life in the Galápagos which resulted in population drops of marine iguanas, seals, and penguins. A similar situation recurred in the 1997-1998 major El Niño event and can reasonably be assumed that this was also repeated every time there was a Major (or Super) El Niño in the past.
The Galápagos Islands lie some 600 miles west of the shore of Ecuador and sit straddling the Equator.
Five important Pacific Ocean currents meet there: The Panama Current, the nutrient rich Humboldt flows north up the coast of South America and then turns west heading to the Galápagos, where it joins in the westward flowing South Equatorial Current. Slipping along the equator, flowing west to east, is the North Equatorial Countercurrent. “Lastly, and possibly most importantly, is the Cromwell Current, aka the Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent. Until now, we’ve been talking about surface ocean currents, but the Cromwell flows about 300 feet down, from west to east along the equator. When it hits the Galápagos from the west, it’s deflected toward the surface, bringing yet more cool, nutrient-rich water. “ [ source ] Nutrient rich waters increase the plankton growth and that attracts the sardines and other fishes which eat the plankton.
El Niño conditions do not “cause rapid, extreme ocean heating across the Eastern Pacific tropics.” (as stated in the NYT) Rather, according to NOAA, an El Niño event is when “huge masses of warm water … slosh east across the Pacific Ocean towards South America.” (well, sort of…) The El Niño is not something that causes heating of the ocean surface, it is an effect of warmer waters moving from the western Pacific to the eastern Pacific, in part by a weakening of the easterly trade winds, which blow east to west. El Niño can be identified by a certain pattern of changed wind and ocean currents — and in fact, there are many sub-classes of El Niños, which each have differing effects on the world’s weather.
But for the Galápagos, this is the important effect in regards to the ocean:
El Niño’s mass of warm water puts a lid on the normal currents of cold, deep water that typically rise to the surface along the equator and off the coast of Chile and Peru, said Stephanie Uz, ocean scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. In a process called upwelling, those cold waters normally bring up the nutrients that feed the tiny organisms, which form the base of the food chain.
“An El Niño basically stops the normal upwelling,” Uz said. “There’s a lot of starvation that happens to the marine food web.” These tiny plants, called phytoplankton, are fish food – without them, fish populations drop, and the fishing industries that many coastal regions depend on can collapse. [ source ]
As for the small pelagic fish that depend on those upwellings and the plankton that feed off their nutrient rich waters, they move with the food supply — similar in patterns occur off the west coast of North America.
Further complicating the situation for Galápagos seals, flightless cormorants and penguins is that the world’s fisheries experts know that sardine and anchovy populations experience multi-decadal-scale cycles of boom and bust population numbers — which may be somewhat related to ocean temperatures, with sardines preferring warmer waters than anchovies — maybe. Some of the fluctuation may be due to or contributed to by overfishing. The scientific jury is still out on the issue. Anchovies boom while sardines bust, and vice-versa. The patterns seen are similar on the western coasts of North America, South America and Africa, and on the east coast of Japan.
It is UNESCO that makes the claim most commonly repeated:
“Already under pressure from tourism development, population growth and the impacts of introduced species, the native wildlife and ecosystems of the Galápagos will be significantly affected by changes in the climate. The key factor looks likely to be how changes in El Niño and other cyclical events are manifest under global warming and how ocean currents and productivity respond.”
CLAIMED THREATS: El Niño is blamed for shrinking marine iguanas (oddly true), damage to Daisy Tree Forests (happened twice in the last 100 years), starving penquins, cormorants and seals, invasive blackberrys, invasive fire ants, damage from rising sea levels.
Taking the last of the claims first: Sea Level.
Sea level hasn’t been changing much in the Galápagos:
Monthly and annual tide gauge records at the PSMSL station located on Isla Baltra show relative sea levels rising and falling and mostly staying within a 100mm/4inch band since 1985. El Niños are known to have a positive effect (raising) on sea levels in the eastern Pacific and we see these noted on the annual graph above.
Just to be thorough we have to look at Vertical Land Movement in order to know if it is the sea surface or the land that is moving — up or down. The good news is that there are CGPS (continuously operating GPS stations — CGPS@TG) in the Galápagos:
Nothing in particular going on with Vertical Land Movement, other than something that seems to be a seasonal cycle, but constrained mostly in a range of about 1 inch (0.025 meters). Even with this short ten year record, we can see that there is no upward VLM disguising rising sea level.
Combining Tide Gauge and CGPS data it does not appear that there has been any SLR at the Galápagos over the last 30 years.
Bottom Line – Sea Level Rise : Not a current threat to the Galápagos Islands or their flora and fauna.
This leaves us with the concerns that El Niño episodes or events will seriously damage the delicate ecological balance of the Galápagos.
NOAA says: “El Niño is a natural, ocean-atmospheric phenomenon marked by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean near the equator. Typical El Niño patterns during winter and early spring include below-average precipitation and warmer-than-average temperatures along the northern tier of the U.S., and above-normal precipitation and cooler conditions across the South. While impacts vary during each El Niño event, NOAA regularly provides temperature and precipitation outlooks for the seasons ahead.”
El Niño events are thought to have been occurring for thousands of years.[ ref. ] For example, it is thought that El Niño affected the ancient Moche people, in what is in modern-day Peru, who may have sacrificed humans in order to try to prevent heavy El Nino rains.
There have been at least 30 El Niño events since 1900, with the 1982–83, 1997–98 and 2014–16 events among the strongest on record. Since 2000, El Niño events have been observed in 2002–03, 2004–05, 2006–07, 2009–10 and 2014–16.
Major ENSO events were recorded in the years 1790–93, 1828, 1876–78, 1891, 1925–26, 1972–73, 1982–83, 1997–98, and 2014–16.
Typically, this anomaly happens at irregular intervals of two to seven years, and lasts nine months to two years. The average period length is five years. When this warming occurs for seven to nine months, it is classified as El Niño “conditions”; when its duration is longer, it is classified as an El Niño “episode”.
There is no consensus on whether climate change will have any influence on the occurrence, strength or duration of El Niño events, as research supports El Niño events becoming stronger, longer, shorter and weaker.” [ some data from Wiki ]
Analysis of past weather records shows that El Niños occurred about 30 times since 1900:
As with all analysis of the past, earlier records are likely to have missed weak or short El Niños. For instance, there was a strong El Niño 1931-1932 (which is not shown in the illustration above). Today El Niños are mostly determined by satellite images and measurements. It is impossible, of course, to counter any claim that concerns the future, so we must depend on the past for an idea of how frequent Major, or Super El Niños do occur.
Almost all of the Climate Change concern for the Galápagos rests on model predictions of double the number of El Niños and stronger El Niños through the 21st century.
“In short, if you are someone who wants more or stronger ENSO events in the future, I have great news for you – research supports that. If you are someone who wants fewer or weaker ENSO events in the future, don’t worry – research supports that too.” [ Climate.gov ]
“Year-to-year ENSO variability is controlled by a delicate balance of amplifying and damping feedbacks, and one or more of the physical processes that are responsible for determining the characteristics of ENSO will probably be modified by climate change. Therefore, despite considerable progress in our understanding of the impact of climate change on many of the processes that contribute to El Niño variability, it is not yet possible to say whether ENSO activity will be enhanced or damped, or if the frequency of events will change.” [ CCSD ]
Here is how these worries related to reality:
There is no substantive evidence that strong or super- El Niño’s will occur more often or that they will be stronger or of longer duration. Climate Science presently does not know what causes El Niños, though we can recognize the physical signs of ENSO changes. Models cannot reliably predict/project El Niños in the future. Thus:
1) When there are future major El Niños, which is almost certain, then there will be starving wildlife (seals, cormorants, penguins and marine iguanas) if and when upwelling slows, waters warm and sardines move to better feeding spots. This is the natural order of things.
2) El Niños in the future will bring more rain to the dry Galápagos, as they have always done, which is good for most of the flora but has some downsides for the some of the fauna like giant tortoises (which prefer dry soil for egg laying). Long rainy seasons can lead to waterlogging of the thin soils which can cause shallow-rooted plants, like the Giant Daisy Tree, to be blown down in storm conditions.
3) El Niños will mean warmer sea surface temperatures by definition, which if high enough, can cause coral bleaching of the reefs around the islands.
These real threats from El Niños are no different today than they have been during the known past and we can confidently assume that these threats existed in the more distant past. The ecological niche that is the Galápagos may actually have been created by and depend upon, in part, the cyclical nature of the ENSO, with its El Niños and La Ninas.
Bottom Line – El Niños: El Niño is not currently an increased risk for the Galápagos. No evidence exists, other than unreliable model projections, that there will be more or stronger El Niño episodes or events in the future.
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I did say, at the beginning: “The fabled living treasures of this group of islands are threatened, besieged and at risk of disappearing forever long before we have had time to discover all of their secrets.” If the risks are not Sea Level Rise, and not future El Niños, what is threatening the Galápagos? In one word:
UNESCO World Heritage gave us a hint: “Already under pressure from tourism development, population growth and the impacts of introduced species…”
The Galápagos Islands were at one time a sleepy little place, visited sometimes by curious scientists and photographers. Today:
“….the sheer growth in tourism, which has been fueled, in part, by the growing popularity of both shorter cruises and land-based tourism, has had an undeniable impact on the islands in recent decades. From 1990 to 2013, tourism arrivals increased from around 40,000 to just over 200,000. During that time, the population of the Galápagos increased from around 10,000 to just over 30,000 [currently believed to be 35-40,000], as Ecuadorians from the mainland migrated here in search of jobs and opportunities created, directly and indirectly, by the tourism industry.
Population growth in inhabited areas has created demand for new infrastructure, housing, automobiles, fresh water, sewage treatment and waste disposal. It has also lead to an increase in the number of new, small businesses in operation, which has further fueled immigration from the mainland. [ source ]
Too many people — a quarter of a million people per year visit the Galápagos, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, are taken by excursion boats to visit uninhabited islands, swim with the seals and sea turtles and drop their trash and cigarette butts everywhere. All the natives (nearly 100 percent immigrants — both from mainland Ecuador and the world at large) and the tourists live on 3% of the land in the Galápagos — by decree from the government. That’s a lot of people crammed into a little space.
All those tourists means lots of built infrastructure — water treatment plants, electrical generation (diesel fueled), fresh water wells, trash disposal, roads, marinas, hotels — all those tourists need local people to see to their needs and desires. But luckily, this also means lots of tourist dollars, at least some of which remain in Ecuadorian hands.
And some of that money goes to fund conservation efforts. Add to the local money grants from the UN and other NGOs, and there is a lot conservation work being done.
The islands need it — tagging along with the people came goats, dogs, cats, pigs, donkeys, cattle, chickens and rats — plus a veritable Noah’s Ark of insects and some troublesome plants.
The worst of the invasive plants might be a blackberry — which establishes itself in distressed soil, such as storm damaged areas of Giant Daisy Trees forests. The blackberries grow so quickly and so dense that the Giant Daisys cannot reestablish themselves.
Of course, feral pigs, goats, donkeys and cattle can nearly denude a whole small island in just a few short years. Tourist dollars have financed elimination schemes (hunting, both from the ground and from helicopters) which have finally been successful on several islands.
“A goat eradication program, however, cleared the goats from Pinta and Santiago and most of the goat population from Isabela. In fact, by 2006 all feral pigs, donkeys and non-sterile goats had been eliminated from Santiago and Isabela, the largest islands with the worst problems due to non-native mammals.”
“…in 1996 a US$5 million, five-year eradication plan commenced in an attempt to rid the islands of introduced species such as goats, rats, deer, and donkeys. Except for the rats, the project was essentially completed in 2006. Rats have only been eliminated from the smaller Galápagos Islands of Rábida and Pinzón.” [ Wiki ]
The government of Ecuador is making bold efforts to get the situation under control: “In 1959, the centenary year of Charles Darwin‘s publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago’s land area a national park, excepting areas already colonised.” Emigration to the Galápagos has been restricted and tourist visits to many sites are being monitored to keep fragile areas from being overrun.
Take Home Messages:
1) The Galápagos Islands have weathered the storms of the Pacific for centuries, probably millennia, and its plants and animals have survived and been shaped by their experiences. They are not threatened in any unusual way in the present or the near future by Climate Change, Sea Level Rise or future El Niños.
2) The real present threats to the treasures of the Galápagos Islands are too many people (both residents and tourists) and the arrival of invasive species over the last 500 years.
3) The Galápagos Islands are home to some magnificent sights and interesting flora and fauna — if you are a Nature enthusiast, it is a great place to get to know. It is better that you visit by proxy and let nature videos and photography inform you. — the Galápagos Islands already have too many visitors.
4) If you must go, find a way to volunteer with one of the conservation groups so that your visit can be part of the solution. (also here, here, and here. Some of these are commercial enterprises, buyer beware.)
5) Various NGOs have programs to which you can donate: The Galápagos Conservancy, The Charles Darwin Foundation, and the The Galápagos Conservation Trust.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
So many of the world’s wonderful places suffer from too much fame and the resulting rush of tourists. Much of the tourism is powered by the desire of the local people to gain financially. Usually the next cycle brings in international travel and hotel conglomerates which insist in building giant hotels and providing all sorts of intrusive services such as guided walking tours, kayaking trips, scuba and snorkeling outings, motor-cat rides — all of which result in degraded environments.
Although the government of Ecuador changes every few years, it has made important strides in improving the situation in the Galápagos. The Ecuadorian National Budget includes support for ongoing work in the Galápagos. UNESCO’s declaration of the Galápagos as a World Heritage site in 2007 has brought aid money from the UN and other international environmental organizations.
If you have been there recently, let us know in comments what you found.
If addressing me, begin your comment with “Kip…” so I’ll be sure to see it.