El Niño Watch
According to the North American Multi-Model Ensemble forecast, there is over 95% certainty of a “strong” El Niño. However there is also more than a 60% chance this El Niño will be the strongest in recorded history, shown through increases of ocean temperatures recorded up to 4°C warmer than usual1, and with these warmer waters extending from the South America coast westward to the International Date Line, typical of an El Niño event2. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have also suggested El Niño 2015 could record-breaking with Sea Surface Temperatures (SST), indicating it will be stronger than the last biggest event in 1997/983. Noting in a recent blog that El Niño 2015 may be the “Bruce Lee” of El Niño’s, NOAA have also increased their predictions for El Niño’s longevity stating, there is over 90% certainty El Niño will continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2015/16, and a 80% chance into early spring 20163.
In the above maps from NOAA, the red areas indicate the warmest SST. Most notably, the red area across the Pacific which was present in 1997 is also present now.
What this means for Galapagos?
A stronger El Niño event will mean that problems associated with El Niño events will be exacerbated. Increases in rainfall will be significant and well as average temperatures throughout the winter, as seen in 1997/98. This will benefit some vegetation however it will most significantly benefit introduced species such as, the hill raspberry (Rubus niveus) therefore conservation activities will need to stop the spread to allow space for native vegetation. In addition sea-surface temperatures will continue to be higher than normal, reducing nutrient rich cold waters and therefore creating significant food shortages. This could dramatically reduce the populations of species such as the Galapagos Penguin, meaning conservation activities will need to be focused around the most vulnerable of species.
The Future of El Niño?
In recent history, El Niño events have been strengthening, with a recent study finding about a 20% increase in intensity over the 20th century, however this cannot be attributed specifically to human induced climate change, as the examined timescale needs to be longer for certainty4. However, into the future global climate change is expected to have a significant increase on El Niño events strength and frequency. Although evidence indicates that the overall amount of El Niño events will not increase it is expected that super El Niño events, as expected this year, will double to occur every 10 years instead of previously every 20 years4. This is because under climate change scenarios the eastern equatorial Pacific warms faster than the surrounding regions, making it easier for sea surface temperatures to increase above average, creating perfect conditions for strong El Niño events4,5.
Overall, looking into the future El Niño events are expected to have increasingly dramatic impacts on Galapagos and the wider world, making it increasingly important that conservation activities project the islands from the possibility of future (increasingly unnatural) natural events.
By Rachael Blundell