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Galapagos Islands Affected By Global Warming

October 2, 2009

The unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands is being threatened by climate change, and scientists are seeking a way to protect its vulnerable species.

The Galapagos wildlife was what helped Charles Darwin develop his thoughts on evolution about 175 years ago. Scientists are now trying to see how global warming is affecting the spectacular yet fragile biodiversity of the islands.

About 600 miles west of the Ecuadorian coast sits the volcanic archipelago, which hosts a number of endemic species that largely depend on each other to survive, reported Reuters.

According to scientists, sudden and frequently changing sea temperatures and the death of coral reefs near the islands reveal the impact global warming is having on local sea life.

“The coral reefs create a habitat; they are like a forest, like the Amazon. They are home to scores of species. … If the corals die we lose thousands of species that are associated to the coral,” said German marine biologist Judith Denkinger.

A scientist based in the Galapagos says the harm being brought to marine life by pollution and climate change could cause a domino effect that would harm species on land too.

“Everything is intertwined. You can’t say this is land, this is sea, they are both one,” Denkinger said..

The United Nations has said that it blames global warming for the melting of ice caps, rising sea levels and uncommon weather across the globe like storms, droughts and floods.

According to the United Nations, between 20 percent and 30 percent of plant and animal species worldwide will likely be confronted with an increased threat of extinction from warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Gabriel Lopez, executive director of the Galapagos-based Charles Darwin Foundation, said the islands have a particularly fragile ecosystem. He thinks that global warming “will have very strong impacts on sea lions, due to the lack of food available to them , on penguins, and on marine iguanas.”

The foundation engages in scientific research geared toward preserving the Galapagos Islands, which creatures like giant tortoises, penguins, the blue-footed booby seabird, iguanas, albatrosses, finches and sea lions call home.

The Galapagos-based scientists believe that the archipelago could become “a life-sized laboratory” where researchers could determine the threat of global warming, and come up with ways to lessen its effects on wildlife.

“The Galapagos can be a barometer for the global community … because in such fragile ecosystem the changes could be immediate,” Lopez said.

The location of the islands could also shed light on how changing the strength or temperature of ocean currents could hurt sea life.

“The Galapagos are amid a unique, dynamic crossroad of currents. Here we can do controlled experiments to see how global warning could affect marine ecosystems in the long run,” Denkinger said.

The oxygen-and-nutrient rich Cromwell current is one of many currents passing through the island that sharks, sea lions and whales depend on for food.

The Charles Darwin Foundation is worried that it may soon need to help animals such as penguins better deal with increasing temperatures or food shortages.

If the worst-case global warming scenarios come to pass, Lopez said the 900 or so Galapagos Penguins in the islands may have to live in man-made “condos”.

“We are going to do all we can not to resort to such extreme measures, but … if the (worst) climate-change models are accurate, I think that it’s going to be a real challenge to save the penguins,” he said.

Another issue affecting the archipelago ecosystem is over-fishing and a growing tourism.

The wildlife and immaculate beaches drew around 173,000 tourists to the islands last year, which is about double the number in 2003. More tourists means more hotels, restaurants, shops and bars, and more people from the mainland coming to the islands in search of employment.

Environmentalists are saying that even though the islands are well-cared for by the Galapagos National Park, the tourism industry has some impact on the ecosystem.

“I was here in the early 1990s and especially here in Puerto Ayora (in the island of Santa Cruz) the changes have been quite dramatic. More vehicles, more construction, more population, the tourist influx … it worries me,” Lopez said.

Over-fishing has become a problem as park rangers are forced to intercept ships fishing illegally and carrying slaughtered sharks and banned equipment, such as long-lines and shark nets.

If the shark population drops, it could disturb the delicate balance of life in the islands, according to experts.

“I love snorkeling, and the truth is that life under water has changed significantly. Before, it was easy to see enormous schools of fish, and sharks by the hundreds. I’m not exaggerating,” said Jorge Fernandez, a yacht captain.

“If you see a shark now you should consider yourself lucky,” said the seafarer, who has been working in cruise ships in the islands for 20 years.

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