Travelers tend to be concerned about planning their vacation when there is an El Niño in Galapagos. Sensationalized weather reports make it seem like El Niño is synonymous with flooding and destruction, especially foreboding for a visit to the tropics.
In a way, people are right to expect that an El Niño in Galapagos will have an effect on their trip. What they don’t know is that it is a positive one. El Niño years mean warm water for swimming and an overabundance of plant life that helps terrestrial species to thrive.
What Happens during El Niño in Galapagos?
The trade winds and ocean currents in the Pacific Ocean alternate between neutral patterns, El Niño cycles, and La Niña cycles. Under “normal” circumstances, trade winds blow west across the Pacific. Warm water is pushed west toward the coast of Australia and Southeast Asia. An upwelling of cold water surfaces along the South American coast, bringing nutrient-rich water to marine life. Under these conditions, the coastal region of South America is dry and desert-like, while the Australian coast is rainy.
South American fisherman observed that on certain years, around Christmas, the trade winds weakened, warm surface water reached the coastal region, and much Galapagos fish, which depended on the nutrient-rich cold water currents, died. During these years, terrestrial life flourished from the heavy rainfall in what was otherwise an arid region. They called this change El Niño, after the Christ-child, a name which climatologists later adopted when they began to study it as an oceanographic and meteorological phenomenon.
How climate cycles affect the Galapagos
You don’t have to be a fisherman to see the effects of El Niño in the Galapagos. On the islands, both marine and terrestrial life are readily accessible, so even the casual visitor can notice with their populations change.
The effects of El Niño in Galapagos are complex: terrestrial animals abound, but marine animals suffer. Finches, Galapagos tortoises, land iguanas, and other animals that feed on the renewed plant life thrive and reproduce during El Niño seasons, offering a lush show for the islands´ visitors. Due to the lack of trade winds, travelers experience the further benefits of smooth seas and balmy waters for swimming and snorkeling. Marine life on the other hand, alongside flightless birds like penguins and cormorants, struggle to find food without the nutrient-rich cold surface waters.
La Niña is the converse of El Niño. Rather than no trade winds, there are very strong winds: even more, cold water currents reach the coastal region of South America. During La Niña years, marine life flourishes, but terrestrial life struggles with drought and scarcity. La Niña years are great opportunities to check out plant life, finches, tortoises, and land iguanas!
Planning ahead for El Niño?
In the past 60 years or so that scientists have been studying these climate patterns, El Niño has been nearly impossible to predict. In 1995, for example, a severe El Niño event was predicted, but in reality, the atmospheric conditions were mild, while the strongest and most devastating El Niño on record took place two years later, in 1997.
A similarly foreboding prediction was made for the 2015 El Niño cycle, but what happened, in reality, was strange and, most important, uncharacteristic of previous climate patterns. Surface ocean temperatures were recorded at some of the highest levels since the 1950s, but unlike in other El Niño years, the trade winds did not stop and atmospheric conditions were unaltered. Some cold water upwellings reached the coastal region and marine wildlife populations were not as affected as in previous El Niño years.
There is little existing scientific documentation of the effects on wildlife of El Niño in Galapagos. However, the University of Washington biology professor Dee Boersma (and author of the TED talk: Pay Attention to Penguins) is starting to build knowledge on the subject: She observes penguin populations as a key indicator of marine health. During a February 2016 visit to the Galapagos, Boersma noted some negative impacts of the warm ocean surface temperatures on the penguins: they were not breeding, and many were covered in algae from spending so much time in the water looking for food. Sea lions and marine iguanas were also thin and undernourished. However, overall Boesma concluded that the penguins appeared to be in good condition.
Recent NOAA reports now indicate La Niña conditions in the equatorial Pacific. The cold water influx will allow more algae to blossom, and Galapagos penguins and other marine life will be able to recover, gain weight and continue breeding.
Some observers have noted this year’s anomaly as part of a larger tendency towards unpredictability with regards to climate issues. “What was normal is no longer normal,” writes Professor Boersma. We, like the Galapagos wildlife, will have to continue adapting to the changing climatic conditions on the islands.
Fortunately, travelers are able to enjoy different aspects of the Galapagos archipelago during each of the Pacific Ocean’s climate cycles. Regardless of whether there is a La Niña or El Niño in Galapagos, or if it is a “normal” climate year, visitors to the Galapagos Islands will have a chance to experience the particular wonders of this very unique ecosystem.