El Niño - conditions report

Cumulus clouds cover the sky. It smells like rain, and so we prepare. Actually, we have been preparing for several months already, since we received the prediction of an El Niño event for the current year.

El Niño isn’t coming, it’s already here, and it is here to stay for a while.  Have we noticed any unusual sightings as yet?

We have encountered thin marine iguanas on Fernandina, and the skinniest along the coast of Puerto Egas, Santiago Island.  Sea temperature has been 2-Celsius degrees higher than the average, and we have had unparalleled underwater visibility.

It rained in Santiago, Santa Cruz, and Bartolome.

However, for those of us who experienced the El Niño of 1997-1998, this is relatively mild - so far. Is the worst yet to come? I remember that by February 1998 I literally walked trails of desolation.

During 1997-1998, we still had a lot to see when visiting the National Park. We did find animals, naïve as always; but compared to normal years, it was death and desolation”, says Antonio Adrian, a naturalist guide since 1994.

Naturalist Greg Aranea snorkels almost every day to take underwater footage and photographs. He noticed that by August this year, in Tagus Cove (Isabela Island), there was a notorious decimation of green algae and sargasum, “In August, water was as warm as it is now. I saw skinny iguanas, and several dead ones along Puerto Egas. By September, October, temperatures dropped a little, and only now, they are rising again”.

At the writing of this article, the most recent update prepared by NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States), confirmed that El Niño conditions were present. Positive equatorial sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies continued across most of the Pacific Ocean.

During the last four weeks, tropical SSTs were above average across most of the Pacific (2.5 Celsius degrees above average).  Carlos Romero, a guide for twenty years, notices more dead sea lions than usual. Several are showing signs of a viral pox that has been observed only during extremely warm years. I saw a young one covered by “pustules”, playing on the Baltra dock at the end of November, and a few have been recorded floating dead in Tagus Cove.

Paul Vergara, naturalist raised on Floreana Island, says, “For me, it was clear that there was something going on. There have been fewer Waved albatrosses nests this year. I have counted three to four juveniles at Punta Suarez, when in normal years one can find dozens. And the adults have left earlier. I believe albatrosses are key indicators of climate change”.

El Niño is the warm face of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), it refers to the cycle of warm and cold temperatures, as measured by sea surface temperature, SST.  The Southern Oscillation is the atmospheric component of El Niño. This component is an oscillation in surface air pressure between the tropical eastern and western Pacific Ocean waters. The southern Oscillation Index (SOI) measures the strength of the SO by computing the difference in the fluctuations in surface air pressure between Tahiti (in the Pacific Ocean) and Darwin (Australia- in the Indian Ocean).

El Niño episodes have negative SOI, meaning there is lower pressure over Tahiti and higher pressure in Darwin.  Every index, temperature and air pressure verifies we are indeed in an El Niño year, there’s no denying it.

So far, it’s not as bad as it was in 1997-1998, though indications are that it could last until June.   According to NOAA if the warming occurs for only seven to nine months, it is classified as El Niño “conditions”. When it occurs for longer it is classified as El Niño “episode”.

Either as “condition” or as “episode” it is having an effect on the Galapagos wildlife. As for a visit to the islands, it will be like every time, an interesting experience.

The logistics would change: rain jackets, umbrellas and mosquito repellent should become a must.  But above all, keen eyes, as we will witness natural selection at work.

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