- Animal Portrait
- Animal Behaviour
- Man in the Archipelago
To find out more and for information on how to enter, please visit the competition page on our website.
To find out more and for information on how to enter, please visit the competition page on our website.
A powerful 8.2 magnitude earthquake rocked northern Chile earlier this week, causing at least six deaths and a two-metre high tsunami that swept portions of the coast. In anticipation of further waves, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued warnings for Chile, Peru, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador, the last of which the Galapagos Islands belong to. All warnings, watches and alerts for Ecuador were fortunately lifted later, but this raises the question: What are the impacts of tsunamis on the Galapagos Islands?
It may not be often remarked upon, but the Galapagos Islands are no strangers to natural disasters. Volcanic in origin and located near the conjunction of the Cocos and Nazca tectonic plates, the Archipelago witnesses eruptions and earthquakes to this day. It is also subjected to tsunamis, most recently in 2011 after the devastating Tohoku Earthquake in Japan. How well prepared are the Islands for these catastrophic events, especially for tsunamis, which can strike with deadly force thousands of kilometres from their source?
For the most part, the human impact is relatively minor. Thanks to efficient evacuation plans and disaster management, there have been no recorded fatalities from tsunamis in Galapagos’ history. In addition, damage to infrastructure on the Islands is generally not extensive; many affected businesses repairing and restarting operations quickly after the 2011 tsunami, where waves 1.77 metres in height coincided with a high tide to lash the shore.
Obviously, low-lying buildings were hit harder, including parts of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). The tsunami destroyed facilities, flooded workshops, laboratories and storage buildings while scattering equipment in a wide radius around the station. Highly buoyant scuba tanks were found scattered throughout the bay for weeks to come.
But what of the natural costs? The flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands did suffer during the 2011 tsunami, though to varying extents. According to a rapid assessment carried out by the CDRS, wave height and penetration varied significantly between areas. Animals affected by the waves included the flightless cormorant (which suffered some nest destruction), sea turtles and marine iguanas. By all accounts the overall natural environment was not drastically disturbed, and critically endangered species, such as the mangrove finch, fortunately remained unharmed.
Still, it is too soon to say that the Galapagos Islands do not have much to fear from the sea. Despite escaping relatively unscathed from previous tsunamis, including Tuesday’s threat, this is no guarantee of future security. Geophysicist Mark Simons from the California Institute of Technology predicts that there will be an even larger earthquake to strike the region in the future, but nobody knows when that will be or the strength of the waves it may create. Eruptions can also generate tsunamis, and as an archipelago with active volcanoes, the threat of such waves is potentially very close to home.
As the human population continues to grow on the Islands, increasing competition and pressure upon the fragile ecosystem, there is also the heightened risk that the Galapagos as a whole will become more vulnerable to natural disasters. In this sense, this is but a reflection of a similar narrative that is playing out in the larger world. How we choose to manage our influence, and indeed our own responses to natural disasters, will play a progressively larger role in determining the impacts of such catastrophes on the environment – and us.
by Jose Hong
Tomorrow is the second ever International Day of Forests, a United Nations backed initiative which aims to raise awareness of sustainable management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests for the benefit of current and future generations.
Forests cover a third of the total land surface on Earth, which is almost exactly the same percentage as the forest coverage in the Galapagos National Park. However, in a way so typical of Galapagos, things are not quite as they first appear and the trees and forests are no exception.
One of the most important genera in the Galapagos forest is not strictly a tree at all. To be more specific, these Scalesia plants are giant members of the daisy family (Asteraceae). They can grow up to 20m in height and have a trunk circumference of 60cm. While in stature they may appear to be trees, a closer look will reveal that they share many similarities with shrubs – including soft, pithy timber and fast growth, on average 4m within their first year.
Scalesia plants account for 15 of the 180 endemic species of flora in Galapagos. The largest and most dominant species is Scalesia pedunculata. The zonation of plants in the Islands is intrinsically linked to altitude, with the Scalesia zone between 400 and 700m. At this height above sea level, the forests are regularly shrouded in the garua mist, so famous across the Islands. This incredibly humid environment leads to numerous epiphytes (a plant that grows on another plant) covering the Scalesia and taking moisture directly from the air without the need for roots.
Another of their unique traits is that many of the plants in Scalesia forests are around the same age. As the plants grow vertically very quickly, they create a canopy cover, casting a shadow on the forest floor. This prevents the growth of younger individuals and leads to vast swathes of trees growing together. The down side to this is that natural events can lead to population crashes. This has been documented twice; once between 1935-40 and again between 1982-3. The latter event coincided with a very strong El Nino which, due to its associated increase in rainfall, weakened the root systems, allowing strong winds to topple these giant daisies. Once the canopy is removed, seeds which have remained dormant on the forest floor have access to sunlight and begin to grow, creating the next generation of forest.
However, it is not only these large natural events which threaten the species’ survival. The soil in the Scalesia zone is some of the most fertile across the Islands. The human population has taken advantage of this by turning large areas into agricultural land. Non-native species have been introduced (some intentionally such as Guava and a Himalayan hill raspberry) which outcompete the native floral species. In addition, goats and pigs now roam the forests, devouring any new seedlings that begin to emerge. The result of this could be catastrophic. If another natural event wipes out swathes of forest, there may not be a sufficient seed bank to produce the next generation and vast areas could remain bare.
The International Day of Forests and Trees allows everyone to take a moment to consider the effects that humans have on the trees and plants around them. If effective conservation action is not taken to protect species like the giant daisies of Galapagos, they may simply become another example of the destruction that man can cause. Fortunately, the Galapagos National Park is a closely monitored reserve and research and conservation management is possible thanks to the help and support of many people. If you would like to help conserve Galapagos’ stunning natural beauty, see how you can get involved on our website.
by James Medland
“… nothing but seals, and turtles and such big tortoises that each could carry a man on top of himself, and many iguanas that are like serpents…”
These were the thoughts of the first visitor to the Galapagos Islands, Fray Tomás de Berlanga, who, 479 years ago today, accidentally discovered the Islands. Fray Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, was actually on his way to settle a dispute in Peru but slackening winds and a strong westerly current took him and his crew off course to the Archipelago on March 10th 1535.
He was clearly not impressed at the “worthless slag” which could “create little grass, and only some thistles”. Perhaps his bad mood was caused by the fact his boat was quickly running low on water and their incorrect belief that “on account of its size and monstrous shape, there could not fail to be rivers and fruits”. After spending a few days searching several islands for water and sustenance, Fray Berlanga and his crew left and headed back eastwards towards the mainland having resorted to squeezing juice out of prickly pear cactus fruits for refreshment.
The Islands left enough of an impression on him to include a description of them in his letter to Carlos V, King of Spain, however not enough of an impression to be formally given a name or even claimed as Spanish territory. It was this discovery however, which led to them appearing on world maps as early as 1569. It would be another 300 years after Fray Berlanga’s visit that the HMS Beagle and its crew, including a young Charles Darwin, would made their famous expeditions through the chain of islands.
The Galapagos Conservation Trust and Royal Geographical Society are hoping many more young explorers follow in the footsteps of Fray Berlanga by Discovering Galapagos with the aid of a new educational website.
Discovering Galapagos, the project’s title, will provide a global education platform for all things Galapagos. There will be English and Spanish language websites designed for teachers and students in both the UK and Ecuador. They will have the ability to share classwork, hold Q&A’s with Galapagos experts via Skype and also connect with each other to find out what the life of a student in a very different country is like.
It will not only be of interest for students however, as the website will also showcase the diverse and important conservation projects that are happening right now. All the information and resources – including teaching materials, interactive activities and quizzes – will be free and available to all. The target is to get the website live by September to coincide with the start of the new academic year and the launch of the new UK national curriculum.
To make sure you keep up to date with the developments of this international project please sign up to the newsletter by visiting Discovering Galapagos. Let the journey begin!
by James Medland
The previous blog post spoke about the numerous threats Galapagos is facing from expected climate change within the next century. However, it shouldn’t all be seen as doom and gloom as multiple adaptation and mitigation strategies are already in progress…
In the last 60 years the human population of the Islands has increased from 2,000 to around 30,000, all of which require housing and infrastructure to make their lives comfortable. The danger when populations increase so rapidly is that the consequential building work is done in an unmanaged and unsustainable manner. The Galapagos Sustainable Buildings Project is a recent joint venture between the Galapagos Conservation Trust, Charles Darwin Foundation and Princes Foundation for Building Community with the goal of reducing the human impact on the Islands through sustainable development. The project looks at reducing the energy and water needs of buildings and not only looks at rejuvenating existing infrastructure but also showcasing best practice ideas for the locals to copy when building new structures.
Monitoring of threatened species
Multiple programmes are underway which ensure frequent and in-depth monitoring of species and habitats at risk from climate change across the Islands. GCT has funded several projects including the Penguin and Flightless Cormorant Monitoring Project which aims to assess the health and stability of populations. Galapagos penguin colonies can also be a useful indicator of the health of the marine environment due to their reliance on it for food. Increased sea surface temperatures and reductions in upwellings lead to the cold-water fish which penguins feed upon migrating away from the Islands, affecting penguins and a whole host of other species. This not only leads to the death of weaker individuals but also results in breeding seasons being skipped, affecting the ability of future generations to be able to replenish populations. By closely monitoring colonies, it allows for management decisions to be made with the most up-to-date data and enables managers to gauge whether or not existing conservation measures are working effectively.
Education and Community Awareness
Another important aspect to all projects is the dissemination of information to locals and tourists to make them aware of the fragile nature of the Islands and what they can do to help protect them. This can and is being done both on and off the Islands: the Charles Darwin Foundation has education centres on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal with informative displays for all visitors; the Galapagos National Park Service ensure that all park guides are trained and educated with the skills and information necessary to prevent impacts to the areas visited; and a new GCT project which launches later this year is a bilingual online education tool called Discovering Galapagos which will allow students and the general public to learn about these unique Islands and the conservation issues they face.
While the experts may still be unsure exactly how climate change will affect the planet, almost everyone is in agreement that there will be significant changes in our lifetimes. The projects mentioned plus many more will hopefully ensure the islands are as prepared as possible for what is to come.
If you would like to contribute to any of the above projects or for further information, please visit the respective website:
Sustainable Galapagos www.sustainablegalapagos.org
Penguin Appeal www.penguinappeal.org
by James Medland
This week sees the 4th annual Climate Week across the UK, with over 1600 events happening across the country. Climate change is not something that is limited to national borders or political boundaries, it is something that affects every country on the planet and every living thing on it. The Galapagos Islands are no different and their unique and isolated location does not protect them from the future threats posed by a changing climate.
Air temperature increase
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates a global increase in air temperature of between 1.8°C and 4°C. Because the Galapagos Archipelago lies on the equator, it is likely to see at least a 2°C increase.
Sea temperature increase
As air temperature increases so too does sea surface temperature (SST). A change in the SST can alter the currents which so many Galapagos species directly or indirectly rely upon. Warm water has fewer nutrients and is far less productive than cooler water. If less nutrients are available for phytoplankton, the primary producers of the sea, the entire marine food web has the potential to collapse, and populations of marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins, fish, sea lions and seabirds could decline rapidly.
An increase in both air and water temperature will result in increased evaporation and therefore more rainfall. This may precipitate down on the Islands in intense showers, leading to flash floods and causing erosion issues. Alternatively, it could prolong the wet season, disrupting the breeding cycles of many bird and reptile species.
Sea level rise
One of the most pressing issues for some species is a rising sea level. Many animals, such as Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas and turtles, rely on the shorelines around islands for resting, nesting or breeding. A rise in sea level will greatly reduce areas available to do this, putting these vulnerable species at even greater risk.
The increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) being released into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution has resulted in a greater absorption of CO2 by the oceans. This process increases the acidity of the water which greatly affects reef building corals as well as other marine species which produce calcium carbonate shells such as mussels and clams. It has been estimated that corals could disappear from Galapagos within the next century.
Increased and stronger El Nino occurrences
El Nino is a natural phenomenon that affects the whole of the Pacific. The weakening of normally strong westerly currents allows warm waters to spread east, leading to increased rainfall and warmer temperatures in South America (including Galapagos). It is predicted that climate change will alter the occurrence of El Nino by making it more frequent and more severe, increasing the impact that it has on many Galapagos species.
Whilst climate change itself wont introduce new terrestrial species to Galapagos, the species that have already been introduced may benefit from it. Introduced species are often more resilient to a changing environment, meaning that they may out-compete the native flora and fauna in times of change. Additionally, with increased rainfall the arid zone that occurs in the lowlands of many islands is likely to become wetter and more vegetated. This could open up previously uninhabitable areas for species to invade, adding to the pressure on the many endemic species that live in this region.
The effects of climate change have been been exacerbated by the increased pressures placed on the Islands from human activity. However, the human population is able to bring in measures to protect the islands and adaptations to cope with these changes. Check back tomorrow to read about the adaptation and mitigation actions that are currently underway in this fragile Archipelago.
by James Medland