ALCEDO VOLCANO, Galápagos — When the clouds break, the equatorial sun bears down on the crater of this steaming volcano, revealing a watery landscape where the theory of evolution began to be conceived.
Across a shallow strip of sea lies the island of Santiago, where Charles Darwin once sighted marine iguanas, the only lizard that scours the ocean for food. Finches, the product of slow generational flux, dart by. Now, in the era of climate change, they might be no match for the whims of natural selection.
In the struggle against extinction on these islands, Darwin saw a blueprint for the origin of every species, including humans.
Yet not even Darwin could have imagined what awaited the Galápagos, where the stage is set for perhaps the greatest evolutionary test yet.
As climate change warms the world’s oceans, these islands are a crucible. And scientists are worried. Not only do the Galápagos sit at the intersection of three ocean currents, they are in the cross hairs of one of the world’s most destructive weather patterns, El Niño, which causes rapid, extreme ocean heating across the Eastern Pacific tropics.
Research published in 2014 by more than a dozen climate scientists warned that rising ocean temperatures were making El Niño both more frequent and more intense. Unesco, the United Nations educational and cultural agency, now warns the Galápagos Islandsare one of the places most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
To see the future of the Galápagos, look to their recent past, when one such event bore down on these islands. Warm El Niño waters blocked the rise of nutrients to the surface of the ocean, which caused widespread starvation.
Large marine iguanas died, while others shrank their skeletons to survive. Seabirds stopped laying eggs. Forests of a giant daisy tree were flattened by storms and thorny invasive bushes took over their territory. Eight of every 10 penguins died and nearly all sea lion pups perished. A fish the length of a pencil, the Galápagos damsel, was never seen again.