Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Observations of "the Niño": will it be another 82/83 sized event here in the Galapagos??

We are back in Puerto Ayora after an exceptionally difficult but successful trip to Genovesa and Bainbridge (more on that soon).  And now the fun paperwork Olympics has resumed, in which we run around between the Charles Darwin Research Station, town, and the Galapagos National Park offices over and over to get all of the important papers approved.  And stamped of course (they love their stamps!).

Our sample export perrmit, signed and stamped by the Galapagos National Park

Our samples, taped shut by the park and ready for export

But this trip it's a little different.  Usually the walk  is sweltering hot under powerful sun and high humidity.  This time, though, we are thankful for the higher cloud cover, and occasional light rains to keep it a *bit* cooler.  Much appreciated, though brief, relief from the heat.

And each time the dark clouds roll in, we point and joke, "THE NIÑO is comming!"  After the great Chris Farley skit, of course.

Jokes aside, we have found ourselves constantly observing slight differences in the way things are this year, and it's impossible not to wonder whether they are early signs of the El Niño.  

And we are not the only ones.  All around town, we hear chatter about the El Niño, and locals ask us what we think might happen this year on the islands.

So what have we observed?

The Bainbridge Flamingo population is down from January.  And there are grasshoppers everywhere (I just got attacked in the face by one!).

But most notably, ocean tempearture and pH have risen considerably. Both signs that the upwelling of cold, nutrient rich, low pH waters from below has been tempered by the El Niño.

And these warm waters have fueled storms, which soaked us at Genovesa, and made the sail between islands "exciting" to say the least.  Poor Frazer might not ever set foot on a sailboat again.  He was a bit green the entire trip....

Clouds building over Genovesa Crater Lake.  11-26-2015

But how does this event stack up to the other greats?  

We are fortunate to have one of the best sources of the local history at our fingertips: the captain of the Pirata, Lenin Cruz.  Lenin grew up in Floreana, and has lived in the Galapagos all of his life.  At 65 years old, he still sails scientists all around the archipelago on the Pirata.  He is quite a local legend.

The Pirata Photo by Stephan Hlohowskyj

While sailing to Bainbridge, Lenin told us how in 1982/83, he could see lightning hitting the islands on the horizon as he sailed.  He recalls that by mid-late December, it was raining hard all throughout the Galapagos. 

Waterfalls had formed over cliffs of dry, barren lava rock.  Lenin's front and back yards had become lakes. And the road between Baltra and Puerto Ayora had washed out in multiple places.  

To get around these obstacles, incoming tourists and locals were transported a few at a time in a construction loader!!  Transporting bus loads of people a few at a time, obviously took a lot of time. So local parties would go well into the night as they waited for all of their guests to arrive!  And I bet this was not exactly what the tourists thought they had signed up for....

When we returned, Lenin dug up an old letter from his mother in Floreana, dated December 12, 1982

Floreana, a 12 de Diciembre de 1982
Sr. Lenin E. Cruz 03
Puerto Ayora 
Mi hijito querido

In the letter, she describes the strong rains that they had been having, noting that the rains had come earlier than normal (although the wet season starts in December, most of the rain typically falls later in the season).  Prior to all of this rain, her well was very low from a long drought, so she also commented on this fragility.  Roughly translated, she said:  
"The rains are strong. I heard on the radio that they are strong on the other islands and all over the world.  The rains are ahead of schedule.  The rains are unpredictable, some years it rains, others nothing."

 So are these rains we've been having a sign of what is to come?   Only time will tell...

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (NSF AGS-1561121). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.