El Niño 2015 and holidays to the Galapagos

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El Nino in

El Niño Infographic

(Infographic by Michael Fulton)

El Nino – frequently asked questions

Lots of our guests have been asking about the El Niño 2015 event and how this will affect the Galapagos Islands – and their planned holiday. We’ve put a list of frequently asked questions to give you an overview of what is happening with El Niño in 2015 and its impact on the Galapagos Islands. We hope you find this useful.

Lots of our guests have been asking about the El Niño 2015 event and how this will affect the Galapagos Islands – and their planned holiday.  We’ve put together an infographic and a list of frequently asked questions to give you an overview of what is happening with El Niño in 2015 and its impact on the Galapagos Islands. We hope you find this useful.

What is El Niño? (ENSO) 
El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a naturally occurring fluctuation in the temperature between the ocean and the atmosphere and is indicated by sea-surface temperature increases of more than 0.5°C for at least five consecutive months in the east-central equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean (between 5°N–5°S and 170°W-120°W).  The event happens when atmospheric pressure systems, beginning in the Pacific Ocean (and later affecting weather patterns throughout the world), change so that the sea surface water in the Pacific Ocean, than normally flow from east to west, reverses. This means that the warmer water usually found in the western side of the Pacific Ocean (Indonesia, Australia) travels eastwards towards South America.

When is El Niño 2015 happening and when do we expect conditions to return to normal? 
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  (NOAA) Climate Prediction Centre, the predicted El Niño event arrived earlier this year in March.  However, when it arrived it was much weaker than expected and almost six months late.  This is set to change and the latest predictions from climate models expect there to be a strong El Niño starting from around now.   Scientists studying the climate indicators have noticed lots of similarities with the 1997/98 El Niño, which was the last strong El Niño event.  According to US NOAA scientists, the weather phenomenon is predicted to intensify and continue through to the spring of 2016, though the events are notoriously hard to predict and are being closely monitored.

Why is it called El Niño and how often does it occur? 
El Niño events typically happen between 2 and 7 years apart, however the cycle is in no way regular or predictable and no two El Niño events are ever the same.  The name El Niño, meaning little boy in Spanish, was originally used by fishermen to describe the annual warming of ocean surface water off the coast of South America which typically happens around Christmas (and so associated with the birth of Jesus ‘ El Niño’ at Christmas).  Scientists later discovered that this warming of the ocean waters were more intense every few years and so the name then shifted to be used for these irregular and more intense events.

Is El Niño linked to climate change? 
Whilst climate change doesn’t cause ENSO events, using the latest generation of climate models, scientists now believe that global warming will increase the intensity and frequency of El Niño events.

How does El Niño affect global weather patterns? 
The El Niño-Southern Oscillation occurs in the Pacific Ocean, but plays an important part in the world’s climate system.  Strong El Niño events, such as the one expected this year, disrupt global atmospheric circulation, which distributes thermal energy across the earth. This in turn impacts weather systems all over the globe. For example in places like Indonesia and Australia, this will mean increased chances of drought, and lower rainfall in India.  For the higher latitudes of North and South America it will mean more severe winter weather, and most likely this will be the case for the UK as well.  For South America, including Galapagos it will mean increased rainfall.

How does El Niño impact the Galapagos Islands? 
Galapagos has been formed by natural events such as El Niño.  These natural events are expected and have continually changed, but as we mention above, no two events are ever the same. This makes it difficult to predict how the Galapagos will be affected this time around and in the future.

What is true is that ocean dependent species will increase their mortality rate due to the scarcity of food available in the seas around the Galapagos. This includes species such as sea lions, marine iguanas, penguins, boobies, and albatrosses. El Niño will also make it harder for these species to breed, further impacting their populations.

However, evolutionary scientists and naturalists agree that an El Niño year is the best lesson in survival of the fittest, since those who survive have gone through the ‘selective filter’ of who best overcomes the natural climatic obstacles and adverse biological conditions.

Which species will be most affected by El Niño?
There are concerns for small, fragile populations such as the Galapagos Penguin and the Flightless Cormorant (read our recent blog) due to the increased intensity and frequency of El Niño phenomenon in recent years, which makes it harder for the populations to recover between the events.  On the flipside, an El Niño event is very positive for all those species that benefit from increased rainfall. Plants usually thrive which means land iguanas and tortoises also thrive in this lush environment as do the land birds such as Darwin Finches, Galapagos Doves, mockingbirds, warblers and hawks.  Whilst the ocean depending species will struggle to breed during the El Niño event, the species who benefit from the conditions can add huge numbers of new individuals to a population, increasing the gene pool and the chances of genetic recombination. From a pure evolutionary standpoint, this is how natural selection works and a perfect example of it at work.

How will El Niño 2015/2016 affect my travel plans? 
During the El Niño event the waters around Galapagos will be significantly warmer from November 2015 to April 2016 and you can expect conditions that are similar to earlier in the year (February/April) in terms of weather and wildlife.  These months are a great time to visit Galapagos, so you don’t need to worry about it impacting your trip.  In terms of snorkelling, visibility is usually much better in the low-nutrient waters and snorkelling time is usually extended, as people are happy being in the water for longer.  It will rain more, with more intensity and for longer than normal, however the rain comes in relatively short bursts as a tropical downpour rather than very long periods of rain. This extra rain also means some very rare occurrences happen; areas that are normally desert will be transformed into super lush vegetation. From a practical point of view, although normally insect repellent isn’t usually necessary in Galapagos, due to the increased rainfall there will be more insects than usual, so it is good to bring some repellent along with you when travelling to Galapagos whilst the El Niño event continues.

If you have any further questions about El Niño and your travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos, please don’t hesitate to contact us.


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