Isolated from the mainland for more than 4 million years, this collection of small islands and islets off the
northwestern coast of South America is a world unto itself. As climate change takes hold, though, isolation can no longer protect the Galapagos from mankind. This living laboratory is providing scientists with crucial insights into why we must act now to save ourselves.
Every two to seven years, the El Niño phenomenon enables warm ocean waters to pool in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean surrounding the Galápagos
. The warmer water acts like a lid that prevents nutrient-rich water from rising. Without it, the marine food chain is choked off at the bottom, affecting the entire ecosystem.
The results are disastrous. Shocking losses of coral reefs
. Species pushed to the brink of extinction. Entire breeding patterns thrown off.
Warming ocean waters brought on by climate change
will exacerbate El Niño conditions in the Galápagos, having irreparable affects on the diversity of life there and on the tourism industry.
El Niño conditions in the Galápagos also give us a good indication of how we can expect climate change to impact species and human populations around the globe. “It’s a really interesting laboratory for the rest of the world,” says CI marine scientist Emily Pidgeon.
Located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands are in a state of constant change. As recently as 2005, volcanic eruptions continued to form two of the youngest islands. A prime example of evolution in action, the islands are a collage of beautiful and mysterious creatures that range from giant tortoises and marine iguanas to penguins and red-breasted frigate birds. These are many of the same animals that Charles Darwin first described to the world.
Since 2003, we have been working in the Galápagos with the Charles Darwin Research Station to monitor and protect marine life, as well as assess the impacts of climate change, and we’re applying lessons learned here in other parts of the world.
We will continue to work with conservationists in the Galápagos to better manage those areas where cooler, nutrient-rich water continues to seep through to the ocean’s surface during El Niño years, and to support governments and communities in reducing fishing pressure in sensitive areas and to find viable alternatives.
“We need to enact conservation measures now to ensure that irreplaceable biodiversity here isn’t lost to climate change,” says CI’s senior climate scientist Lee Hannah.