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