Mounting threat to Galapagos from El Nino

  • 23/07/2015

By Hector Velasco

Scientists fear the Galapagos Islands, celebrated for their breathtaking biodiversity, could face a major threat from El Nino.

The archipelago sustains a vast variety of plant and animal life and has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But its fragile ecosystem may prove no match for the strong winds, heavy rains and warmer than usual ocean currents that accompany El Nino.

The dangers posed by such changes are particularly acute for marine iguanas - reptiles found only on the Galapagos - which live on land but get their food from the ocean.

"Marine iguanas feed only on algae," Eduardo Espinoza, 46, director of marine research at Galapagos National Park, says.

"During times of El Nino, these algae may be scarce and many begin to die."

El Nino refers to the abnormal warming of surface waters in the tropical sections of the Pacific Ocean every three to five years.

Climatologists began observing the most recent El Nino event several months ago and fear because of global warming, the phenomenon will hit the Galapagos with increasing frequency and greater destructive potential in coming years.

Charles Darwin made the Galapagos famous a century-and-a-half ago with research that led him to devise his theory of evolution.

Since then, some of the wildlife he studied has already been wiped out because of man's encroachment and other species have been put at risk by climate change.

The Galapagos, one of the world's great protected nature reserves and one of its most sensitive, hosts more endemic species than anywhere else on Earth - from the giant land tortoises that give it its name, to sharks, birds and the marine iguanas.

Espinoza is closely monitoring the impact of the current El Nino on endangered species in the archipelago - especially on marine iguanas, which are particularly sensitive to the environmental change that is occurring about 1000km from the Ecuadoran coast.

It's not the first time wildlife in the Galapagos has been ravaged by El Nino.

In 1997 and 1998, it struck with devastating effect, wiping out corals, colonies of penguins, sea lions, nests of the flightless marine birds called cormorants - as well as marine iguanas.

Of the iguanas that survived, many experienced severe weight loss, according to Judith Denkinger, a biologist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences at the University of San Francisco in Quito.

It took several years but the iguana population eventually recovered. Their numbers by 2001 were back up to about 700,000.

The results of a census taken in 2014 will provide updated population figures any day now, scientists say.

The plight of the Galapagos is expected to be a key agenda item during high-level climate talks in Paris later this year attended by foreign and environment ministers from 45 countries.

Visitors are not allowed to touch the reptiles but Espinoza freely handles them, lifting them by their tails and sizing them with a tape measure before weighing them to assess the negative effects of the current El Nino.

He says the impact may be prolonged because some expect the weather phenomenon this time to last for several months, possibly through 2016.

The prehistoric-looking marine iguana can live until about 60, so long as its environment is not degraded.

Yet another concern is protecting the sensitive local ecosystem from the eager fingers of tourists.

Visitors try to take away sea shells, volcanic rock, even the sand - just this month, an Ecuadoran woman was caught trying to remove 10 kilos of sand.

At the airport, the luggage of departing passengers is scanned as if agents are looking for contraband drugs.

"Tourists act surprised, and tell us this is allowed everywhere else," says Danny Rueda, ecosystem director at the park. "Here, it is not."