To El Niño or Not to El Niño? That is the recurring question

We’ve been monitoring the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) website on El Niño ever since it existed it seems to us.   You’ll find news items on El Niño on our website that date back several years. 

What prompts us to write about El Niño? Typically, we start seeing increasing mentions of the phenomenon in the traditional/formal media.   That’s usually followed by signs of general public interest in the event, as manifested in mentions on social media.  We start seeing posts from folks planning a trip to Galapagos, asking if El Niño will affect their trip.   This happens every 2, 3 or 4 years.  Things typically spiral up from there, with more mentions in the press, leading to a positive feedback loop and increasing levels of anxiety amongst travellers.    

We’ve found that almost always, the concern about the impacts of an El Niño on the visitor experience in Galapagos is misplaced.  While an El Niño occurs fairly regularly, not every El Niño is the same.  Some are stronger than others, some last longer than others, some affect one region more than another on one occasion, and vice versa on another.  Only in a minority of cases do these El Niño’s have a significant impact on the visitor experience.  The last time this happened was in 1997-1998.   We where there during the tail end of that El Niño, and the impact was impressive.

For the time being, having looked at the data published by NOAA, our conclusion is that it’s too early to tell if this year’s El Niño (currently considered weak by NOAA, but expected to strengthen) will have any significant impact on the quality of a visit to Galapagos.   The chances are small – but of course, never zero.  

How does a strong El Niño affect Galapagos?

In Galapagos, waters usually start to cool down in May – at the start of the Garua season.   During a strong El Niño, they generally stay warm, and may even get warmer.   The increased water temperatures lead to more humidity, which feed more big rain events.   You end up with low nutrient, warm sea waters that starve out marine life (from fish to sea lions to penguins, including marine iguanas and sea birds) and high productivity terrestrial ecosystems benefitting land plants and animals.   Marine life becomes scarcer, while terrestrial life flourishes. 

How long does a strong El Niño last?

A strong El Niño will typically result in a missed “cool / garua” season.  Instead of waters cooling down from May to December, they will stay warm.  You end up having hot season conditions from January of one year, all the way to May of the following year (apx. 16 months).

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