Thursday, December 20, 2018

Required reading - How the Galápagos Islands are at risk from climate change

Twenty years ago the Scribers visited the Galápagos Islands. Our purpose was to experience the underwater creatures and that we did. We spent almost the entire trip diving the northern-most islands, Wolf and Darwin, amongst huge schools of hammerhead sharks and a resident whale shark for example.

In the southern islands, after mornings of diving, we went ashore with a naturalist to experience what Charles Darwin did in his explorations of the flora and fauna of the Galápagos. It was almost magical. My iconic memory is of a shoreline in which a penguin was warming in the sunlight next to a cactus.

But the magic, and the biological and behavioral evidence on which Darwin’s theory of evolution depends, is at risk from rising ocean temperatures. What evolution has produced over thousands and thousands of years is about to be undone during a mere hundred years by the catastrophic effects of man-made climate change.

The New York Times has an excellent feature story on how As Seas Warm, Galápagos Islands Face a Giant Evolutionary Test. Nicholas Casey, a New York Times correspondent based in Colombia, and Josh Haner, a Times photographer, traveled 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador to see how ocean warming is affecting Darwin’s first laboratory. What they found should disturb all of us because we too are at risk because of our own appetites. Think of the Galápagos Islands as a dying canary in man’s coal mines. Extinction is coming.

ALCEDO VOLCANO, Galápagos — When the clouds break, the equatorial sun bears down on the crater of this steaming volcano, revealing a watery landscape where the theory of evolution began to be conceived.

Across a shallow strip of sea lies the island of Santiago, where Charles Darwin once sighted marine iguanas, the only lizard that scours the ocean for food. Finches, the product of slow generational flux, dart by. Now, in the era of climate change, they might be no match for the whims of natural selection.

In the struggle against extinction on these islands, Darwin saw a blueprint for the origin of every species, including humans.

Yet not even Darwin could have imagined what awaited the Galápagos, where the stage is set for perhaps the greatest evolutionary test yet.

As climate change warms the world’s oceans, these islands are a crucible. And scientists are worried. Not only do the Galápagos sit at the intersection of three ocean currents, they are in the cross hairs of one of the world’s most destructive weather patterns, El Niño, which causes rapid, extreme ocean heating across the Eastern Pacific tropics.

Research published in 2014 by more than a dozen climate scientists warned that rising ocean temperatures were making El Niño both more frequent and more intense. Unesco, the United Nations educational and cultural agency, now warns the Galápagos Islands are one of the places most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

I’ll stop there because I would like you to experience for yourselves the Galápagos as revealed in the pictorially rich Times article. And, in the accompanying text, come to understand what our species is about to lose - forever. My second message is that the Galápagos should be on your bucket list.

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