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September 10, 2004
Preparing for Galapagos

As a producer and science writer for the Exploratorium, I’ve investigated science at some pretty amazing places: astrophysics at the South Pole, genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and marine biology under the ice in Antarctica. But for a biologist, there is no more historically significant destination than the Galapagos Islands. These stark, volcanic islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, are the birthplace of modern biological thought. The scientific transformation came at the hands of Charles Darwin, who visited the Galapagos in 1835 and collected some of its unique animals and plants. Darwin studied and ruminated over his unusual collection for 25 years before he synthesized his thoughts on evolution. Radical at the time, and sometimes still controversial, Darwin’s theory is widely accepted and virtually unmodified by scientists nearly 150 years later. In The Origin of Species, Darwin proposed that the mechanism of evolution is natural selection, in which the organisms that are best adapted to their environment survive to produce offspring. As environmental circumstances change, some species die out, others survive and evolve.

What, exactly, inspired Darwin’s ideas on natural selection? The Galapagos Islands, like many of the world’s isolated archipelagos, are showcases for evolution. Few terrestrial organisms are hardy enough to swim, fly, or float to these remote chunks of land and the ones that do, called founder species, find a biological blank slate. The founders adapt and evolve to take advantage of available resources, fanning out and creating new species with unique characteristics that are found nowhere else on earth. Galapagos is famous for these unique, or endemic, species: long-necked giant land tortoises whose shell patterns differ from island to island, the world’s only iguana that swims and feeds in the sea, the only flightless cormorant, and 13 species of affiliated birds known as Darwin's finches.

El Niño in the Galapagos
Recognized by the government of Ecuador as a unique treasure of natural history, the Galapagos Islands have been under protection since 1959 (the 100-year anniversary of The Origin of Species). Ecotourists flock there to see many of the creatures that inspired Darwin’s famous theory, including flamingos, penguins, whales, and the striking blue-footed bobbies, a unique species of bird noted for its elaborate mating rituals and cerulean feet. I hope to see some of these animals myself, but the real purpose of my visit is to document a conference that is using Galapagos as a showcase of another sort: one in which native residents, environmental stewards, and scientists use climate information to balance the needs of society and ecosystems.

The focus of the conference is on early warning systems and knowledge about the climate fluctuation known as El Niño, more formally called El Niño/Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. ENSO begins when normally cool eastern Pacific ocean waters off the coast of South America and the Galapagos Islands warm up and the trade winds slacken. This prevents nutrient-rich deeper waters from coming to the surface, disrupting the food chain for fish and other marine fauna and flora. It can also dramatically disrupt rainfall patterns, causing flooding and changes in vegetation. In the Galapagos, these changes can be good for tortoises (the rainfall increases vegetation, their food source) but bad for marine iguanas (warm water kills off brown algae, which they depend on, and increases green algae, which is toxic to the iguanas).

Climate Affairs and Sustainable Development
ENSO is not just a local phenomenon in the eastern Pacific, it also has dramatic and far-reaching impacts on human and natural communities throughout the Pacific Rim and the world, which is why this conference is drawing scientists and policy experts from China, Australia, Chile, England, and the U.S. Social scientist and conference organizer Michael Glantz from the National Center for Atmospheric Research explains that El Niño is a spawner of climate anomalies and climate-related hazards around the globe. He notes that with good forecasts there are things communities can do — such as cleaning up dry river beds, shoring up bridges and buildings, and repairing roads and rail lines — to reduce hazards.

But, he adds, the point is to get beyond disaster response and compiling of lessons learned and find ways to use climate forecasting and early warning systems to increase the resilience of communities and ecosystems against climate disturbances, and to foster sustainable development. “We’re good at identifying problems, but not at learning from them. I want to move the discussion up from the science and into the social realities. I haven’t done this before; it’ll be one of the harder meetings I’ve organized.”

For inspiration, Glantz likes to quote the young protagonist in Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: “I said that I wasn’t clever. I was just noticing how things were . . . that was just being observant. Being clever was when you looked at how things are and used the evidence to work out something new.”

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