El Niño Phenomenon in the Galapagos Archipelago: Too Much Rain Over Paradise? Or Just Enough?

For those familiar with it, El Niño tends to conjure up images of torrential rains and biblical-level floods rushing throughout Latin America. But it’s often easy for newcomers to overestimate the magnitude of phenomenon in the region, especially when it comes to El Niño Phenomenon in the Galapagos Archipelago. Make no mistake: El Niño is a serious meteorological force throughout a substantial portion of the South American coast. But, as it turns out, the negative reputation that El Niño has throughout much of the world is actually a boon for the enchanted isles and its organisms, in many ways.

What is it?

El Niño phenomenon is a weather anomaly caused by a shift in winds. On a normal year, trade winds coming from the south move up the coast of South America all the way to the Galapagos Islands. With them, the cold Humboldt ocean current moves up as well. In this zone, they hit the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The ITCZ is a belt of low pressure that circles the Earth around the equator, where the trade winds of the northern and southern hemispheres come together. These wind currents then shift west towards Asia, where they collide with warmer winds, causing it to rain.

El Niño phenomenon in the Galapagos archipelago: Diagram showing the pattern of currents, along with pictures that exemplify the contrast of seasons. Photo courtesy of: Francisco Dousdebes

El Niño phenomenon in the Galapagos archipelago: Diagram showing the pattern of currents, along with pictures that exemplify the contrast of seasons. Photo courtesy of: Francisco Dousdebes

Some years, winds from the south are too light and weak to make it all the way up north to the equator. This is when the anomaly happens. With a lack of wind, the Humboldt current doesn’t make it all the way up north either. The ocean goes up from 2 degrees to 4 degrees Celsius. Some marine animals have to travel to colder or deeper waters in order to search for food. Because the cold wind and currents never hit the ITCZ, warmer winds from the west move closer to the eastern Pacific, and with them — increased rainfalls. Conversely, the western Pacific side experiences droughts during this period.
Even so, this increase in drizzles and temperatures has a blooming effect on the land. This is the season when the Galapagos Islands will be at their greenest and most abundant time. The increase in the production of food due to more favourable weather conditions causes animals on land to flourish. So even if there is less marine life to be appreciated, although in the Galapagos it is never really gone, the activity of fauna on land surpasses all expectations.

How Does El Niño Phenomenon in the Galapagos Archipelago Affect Visitor’s Experience of the Islands?

This period of El Niño Phenomenon in the Galapagos Archipelago is what we consider a normal hot season in the archipelago. Tourism and visitor sites are always open and life goes on as usual.

El Niño Satellite Image. Photo courtesy of Francisco Dousdebes

El Niño Satellite Image. Photo courtesy of Francisco Dousdebes

During the hot season in the Galapagos, which typically lasts from December to June, water temperatures tend to be at their warmest and there’s an overabundance of terrestrial species that are flourishing. The colour green runs rampant, with renewed plant life seving as a gigantic feast for finches, Galapagos tortoises, land iguanas and several other animals that depend on the fruits of the earth for sustenance. Consequently, visitors are treated to a rather energetic display of activity when it comes to all the wildlife present on the islands. In time of great supply, productivity goes up as well – courtship display and mating dancing are occurring for several species.
Up above, “flash rains” remain present for brief periods throughout the day (typically the afternoon) after which the remainder of the day tends to stay clear and even fresh. Lower elevations tend to receive less rain that higher ones.
Things on sea are rather pleasant as well. The absence of trade winds offers travellers the chance to dip into warmer waters and experience calmer seas aboard their respective vessels.
Make sure you enjoy the best of the Galapagos hot season (including our BIG15 wildlife) aboard our Galapagos cruises!

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With parents that worked for the U.S. Foreign Service up until he graduated from high school, Chris was raised to have the heart of a nomad throughout his life. He has resided in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador throughout his years, and just recently spent the past four up in Canada finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy & English at the University of British Columbia.

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