El Niño Weather Phenomenon in the Galapagos Islands
If you have travelled to South America recently, you may have heard locals talking about the “El Niño” weather phenomenon, that’s making South America’s winter much warmer than usual. The El Niño, is a naturally occurring weather phenomenon that happens every 5-7 years. It’s a fluctuation in temperature between the ocean and the atmosphere. 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.
The El Niño phenomenon can increase sea surface temperatures by 1 degree Celsius and more, for up to 5 consecutive months. Anything above 1 degree Celsius is considered strong and causes a potential 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 destruction that can cost up to millions of dollars to repair.
Change of Global Weather Patterns:
- Increased rainfall in South America
- Decrease in hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico
- Warmer waters increase the number and intensity of tropical storms in the Eastern Pacific
- Heavy rainfall in Central America's Pacific Coast
- Longer and colder winters in California
- Severe winter weather in the higher latitudes of North and South America
- Colder than normal winters in the UK
- Drought in Australia and Indonesia
- Below average rainfall in India
El Niño and the Galapagos Islands
The unique ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands depends on the nutrient rich Humboldt Current, that 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 depend 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 (May- December), 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.
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 serve 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.
• 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.
If you are travelling to the Galapagos Islands in 2015 or 2016, we strongly encourage you to talk to your Galapagos Naturalist about the positive and negative effects of the El Niño phenomenon. You will see the first-hand impact of this natural weather phenomenon. It is hard to predict the severity of the El Niño phenomenon, since it varies at every occurrence. The positive side to all of this, is that once the phenomenon is over, the Galapagos Islands go back to their "normal" state and the wildlife that was lost, grows back to its stable population. If you have any further questions regarding a Galapagos Island Cruise or the El Niño Phenomenon, Contact Us at Rainforest Cruises, we will be happy to help.