Report from Galapagos Exploratorium
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Dispatch #5 

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September 16, 2004

Some of the themes of this workshop have been playing out in the experiences of the attendees. For instance, El Niño and its opposite climate twin, La Niña, are driven by either warm or cold water in the Pacific. I experienced my own El Niño and La Niña events every morning when I took a shower. When I stepped in, the water was either very cool (La Niña) or uncomfortably warm (El Niño). The shower would cycle between the two temperature states with unpredictable timing, so I was unable to forecast when each would appear. If it had been one or the other, I could have adjusted my expectations. The fact that it flipped with no warning made for some very uncomfortable showers.

Another theme of the meeting was the notion of vulnerability and resilience. A country or an ecosystem that is considered resilient can absorb the “climate shock” of an El Niño or La Niña event and return to normal after it passes. Areas considered “vulnerable” can take years to recover from extreme weather events, either because they lack economic resources or robust ecosystems, or both. There was considerable discussion about the notion of vulnerability in the sessions, which seemed to imply that being called vulnerable was a bit shameful, as if the strong were somehow blaming the weak for their condition. One of the South American participants said that Spanish speakers don’t understand the term unless it has a last name, for example “vulnerable to drought.”

As if to drive the point home, we had a minor health crisis during the workshop when many of us succumbed to an intestinal bug or flu (myself included). By the third day, half the people were sick, even those from Ecuador and the Galapagos, and it didn’t seemed tied to what or where we ate. The seemingly random nature of who got sick and who didn’t left us all wondering about the nature of vulnerability and resistance. In the end, we all recovered, so in a sense we all have the potential for resilience.

Climate disturbances, like exposure to harmful microbes, are a fact of life. How we respond to them depends in part on our circumstances, but circumstances can be changed with foresight, knowledge, and effort. Building resilience goes beyond forecasts and early warning systems for El Niño and towards what NCAR workshop organizer Mickey Glantz calls “El Niño knowledge,” the collective experience and understanding of scientists, community leaders, and everyday folks. “We want to be moving toward 'El Niño knowledge' and away from a sole focus on waiting for a specific forecast,” Glantz writes in an e-mail. “Society can reduce its vulnerability as well as increase its resilience if the people take advantage of all they know about El Niño, La Niña, climate variability, and extreme events that they have had to cope with in their regions and in the past.”

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