It happens regularly in the Galapagos Islands. Every two to seven years, the El Nio phenomenon warms the tropical Pacific Ocean and alters the weather. Regional fish populations collapse. Marine iguanas starve. Sharks swim away.
With climate change threatening to bring with it more frequent and intense El Nio patterns, the Galapagos region is ideal for studying how Earths biodiversity responds to changing conditions.
Its a really interesting laboratory for the rest of the world, says Conservation International (CI) marine scientist Emily Pidgeon. If you want to test which species survive better in warm water and why, if you want to develop tools and techniques for conservation in warming oceans, you can see all this happen in the Galapagos every few years.
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today releases part two if its report examining Earths vulnerability and adaptation to climate change, CI is studying the Galapagos as a microcosm to understand precisely those concerns.
LEARN MORE: Read a Q&A of our chat with marine experts Emily Pidgeon and Scott Henderson.
What Happens in the Galapagos
The Galapagos are home to some of the most unique biodiversity on Earth due to their geographic isolation, combined with ocean and wind patterns.
The islands lie in an unusual spot, where warm and cold ocean currents converge. In normal years, this combination brings nutrient-rich water from the oceans depths to the surface surrounding the islands. These nutrients support abundant and unique marine life from the bottom of the food web up.
But all of that changes during an El Nio year. Warm ocean waters pool in the tropical eastern Pacific and surround the Galapagos, acting 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.
For example, warm El Nio conditions have resulted in the loss of an estimated 95 percent of coral reefs around the islands. The Galapagos Damsel fish (Azurina eupalama) is now believed to be extinct due to the extreme warming. Many sea lions and marine iguanas did not survive the 1997-98 El Nio.
Conversely, a number of plants and insects have thrived on lush land and wetter weather, brought on by rain fall sometimes 10 times greater than usual.
Conservation Efforts Are Being Accelerated
The strength of recent El Nio conditions coupled with the impending impacts of more gradual, but steadily increasing climate change gives conservationists reason to accelerate their work. Since 2003, CI has been working in the Galapagos with the Charles Darwin Research Station to monitor and conserve marine biodiversity. Now CI is further integrating climate change considerations into conservation planning and is raising money to continue research in the region.
Conservationists in the Galapagos will work to better manage those areas where cooler, nutrient-rich water continues to seep through to the oceans surface during El Nio years. CI will also work with partners in supporting governments and local communities to reduce fishing pressure in over-fished and sensitive areas and to find viable alternatives.
Applying Lessons Elsewhere
CI will apply lessons learned in the Galapagos to other parts of the world. Released in early February, section one of the IPCC report revealed that long-term climate change is already affecting marine biodiversity. Temperature shifts fueled by human activity are warming our oceans, shrinking polar ice coverage, and prompting rising waters.
For Earths marine biodiversity, these changes trigger emergencies. Warmer oceans are closely associated with coral bleaching. Rising seas make sea turtle nesting beaches more vulnerable to erosion and flooding. Shrinking polar ice coverage forces marine species accustomed to living below ice to adapt.
We need to enact conservation measures now to ensure that irreplaceable biodiversity isnt lost to climate change, says CIs senior climate scientist Lee Hannah.