Galapagos, El Niño, and Climate Change

In our previous post we talked about human impacts on the Galapagos.  There is one more human impact that we’ll discuss in this post and that is climate change.  Climate change is being caused by the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases humans are putting in the air.  The most common greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which primarily comes from the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas).  There will be many impacts on the Galapagos from climate change, but we’ll talk about just one that we learned about.

It is not completely understood yet, but it appears that climate change is increasing the number of strong El Niño events.  El Niño is a warming of the water at the surface of the Pacific Ocean that occurs every 2 to 7 years.  It has occurred regularly and naturally for at least the past 300 years, and probably for a lot longer.  Generally it is pretty small.  But once in a while, the warming is a lot more than typical.

When this happens, there are a lot of consequences for the world’s weather.  But one thing that happens in the Galapagos is that the cold water currents that bring a lot of nutrients and fish to the islands are disrupted.  Fish which provide food for animals like the Galapagos Sea Lion, Galapagos Fur Seal, and Galapagos Penguin either stay farther away from the Galapagos, or stay deeper where the water is colder.  This means it’s a lot harder for these animals to find food.  A strong El Niño event in the 1980s almost caused the Galapagos Penguins to become extinct.  Their populations can recover, but the concern is that if El Niño events happen more often, animal populations may not have enough time to recover, putting the animals in danger of extinction.

Galapagos Penguin
Galapagos Penguin
Jamie & Jason with Galapagos Sea Lions
Jamie & Jason with Galapagos Sea Lions

The Ecuador government (the Galapagos are part of Ecuador) has put in place a goal for the Galapagos to be fossil-fuel free by 2020 – which is definitely a step in the right direction.  But all of us in the U.S. — which uses far more fossil fuels than Ecuador — can do our part.  By using less energy, and tapping into renewable sources of energy (like solar and wind energy) rather than fossil fuels, we can have an impact on carbon dioxide levels and climate change in fragile places like the Galapagos.


Study Guide Questions

  1. What is El Niño?
  2. How frequently does El Niño occur?
  3. Why does El Niño make it harder for animals like the Galapagos Penguin and Galapagos Sea Lion to find food?

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