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How El Niño Affects The Galapagos Islands


If you have ever traveled to South America, you may have heard locals talking about the “El Niño” weather phenomenon, that’s makes some South American winters much warmer than usual. El Niño is a naturally occurring climatic phenomenon involving a cyclic unusual warming of the surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean which can have a big impact on the Galapagos Islands – and the rest of the world.

It happens on average every 5 years, but is quite irregular and can occur anywhere between every 2 to 7 years. It typically lasts for 9 to 12 months, often beginning mid-year and peaking at the end of the year. During an El Niño event, warm weather currents are sent to South America because westward blowing trade winds slow down, causing the ocean currents to be thrown off and increasing sea surface temperatures by 1 degree Celsius or more. Anything above 1 degree Celsius is considered strong and causes a potentially catastrophic global warming reaction (when sea surface temperature rises, the atmosphere heats up).

Weather patterns are temporarily disrupted around the world, typically making certain regions wetter, leading to flooding (Peru or California) and others drier (South East Asia). The El Niño phenomenon transfers heat stored in the deeper layers of the ocean to the surface. This combined with global warming, causes serious damage to the environment, wildlife and leaves some countries with the destruction that can cost up to millions of dollars to repair.

Boat at sea in the storm

Storm at sea

Global Effect of El Niño

The phenomenon affects the globe, not just South America. Here are a list of the global effects of El Niño.

  1. Increased rainfall in South America
  2. Decrease in hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico
  3. Warmer waters increase the number and intensity of tropical storms in the Eastern Pacific
  4. Heavy rainfall in Central America’s Pacific Coast
  5. Longer and colder winters in California
  6. Severe winter weather in the higher latitudes of North and South America
  7. Colder than normal winters in the UK
  8. Drought in Australia and Indonesia
  9. Below-average rainfall in India

How does El Niño affect the Galapagos Islands?

The unique ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands depends on the nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, which typically flows into the Galapagos waters. However, without the trade winds to pull the warm water to the west, the Humboldt current does not reach the Galapagos region. El Niño’s strong winds, heavy rains, and warmer ocean currents damage the fragile Galapagos ecosystem. The disruption, (and destruction) starts with the marine life that depends on the current to bring nutrient-rich waters. Fish and algae begin to die from lack of nutrients, leaving sea birds, marine iguanas, sea turtles, and other marine mammals without food.

If you visit the Galapagos Islands during the El Niño phenomenon, you’ll notice many sea lions, sharks, fish, and birds searching for food in places they typically avoid. Many of the animals, like the Galapagos Penguins and Flightless Cormorants, have a very difficult time breeding during this scarce time. Due to the increase of rainfall, however, the plants tend to thrive, resulting in land iguanas and giant Galapagos tortoises enjoying the lush environment. With the increase of wild plants, many land birds thrive as well– Darwin Finches, Mockingbirds, Galapagos doves and Hawks, among others.

An extreme occurrence of El Niño lasted for a whole year from 1982 to 1983. The biggest occurrence ever was between 1997 and 1998, when it severely damaged the eco-systems of the Galapagos. The terrible long-term effects of El Niño could destroy coral reefs, caused by the currents’ increase in the ocean’s temperature.

Seal looking in the camera

Sealion puppy

Galapagos Wildlife Affected by El Niño

  • Galapagos Marine Iguanas: these reptiles are only found on the Galapagos Islands. They live on land, but get all of their food from the ocean. They feed primarily on algae. During the time of El Niño, algae lacks its proper nutrients and is very scarce. Many Marine Iguanas begin to die at this time, and those that survive, are severely underweight. It takes several years to recover the Land Iguana population after a strong El Niño phenomenon. 
  • Blue-Footed Boobies: Fish-eating birds are hit very hard by serving El Niño periods. Blue-Footed boobies fish near the shoreline. Normally, there are plenty of fish within a mile or two of the coastal waters, however during the phenomenon, they are forced use all of their energy flying around looking for a few fish that may be left out in the distance. During past El Niño events, the Blue-Footed Boobies in the Galapagos did not reproduce at all.
  • Red-Footed Boobies: These birds have a harder time during the El Niño event than their Blue-Footed cousins. Red-Footed Boobies fly several miles from the coast to catch fish there, causing the birds to lose much energy. It is not certain why in previous phenomenons, Red-Footed Boobies seemed to disappear, returning only when the El Niño event was over.
Penguin looking in the camera

Penguin on a cloudy day

  • Galapagos Penguins: These penguins are endemic to the Galapagos Islands and feed off of the fish on the coast of the islands. Without the ability to fly, the Galapagos Penguins suffer greatly during the El Niño phenomenon and rarely reproduce during this time.
  • Flightless Cormorant: Over time, the Flightless Cormorant lost its ability to fly, its reduced wing size is thought to have evolved from the lack of need to fly away from predators. Similar to the Galapagos Penguin, the Flightless Cormorant suffers greatly during the El Niño event.
  • Galapagos Tortoise: It also strangely affects the genders of the islands’ famous tortoises, with the warmer weather from El Niño causing the tortoise population to produce more males. However, it seems the tortoises have adapted to these effects and their populations have evolved to allow for this periodic climatic change.
Iguana on a rock in the evening light

Marine Iguana

When is the Next El Niño in the Galapagos?

Historically it has been very difficult to know when El Niño will occur next, but thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, predictions can now be made 18 months in advance by monitoring surface sea temperatures, ocean heat content (the average heat in the top 300 meters of ocean) and recognizing precursor events such as the Indian Ocean dipole. For the latest predictions please see the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

Should I travel to Galapagos during El Niño?

Fortunately, no matter what the Pacific Ocean’s climate cycle is, you will always be able to enjoy different aspects of the islands. If you do visit the Galapagos Islands during El Niño, you should be prepared for irregular heavy rainfall and the chance of younger children potentially witnessing disturbing effects on the wildlife. Conversely, it is also a unique opportunity to learn about this remarkable climatic phenomenon. Whether you travel during El Niño or a “normal” year for Galapagos, exploring this unique ecosystem will always be an unforgettable vacation.


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This entry was posted September 9, 2015
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