UMaine researcher develops simulated climate future of Galápagos to guide conservation

by Beth Staples, University of Maine
October 14, 2021

Protecting the Galápagos Islands — sometimes referred to as an evolution showcase and a living museum — is a priority for Noah Charney.

“The Galápagos are a global treasure,” says Charney about the 19-island volcanic archipelago that’s home to giant tortoises, finches, marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, huge cacti, land snails, mockingbirds, corals, sharks, penguins, sea lions, iguanas and seabirds.

In 1978, the Galapagos were designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage site of outstanding universal value. Other sites include East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and Grand Canyon National Park.

“They’re one of the last places to have giant tortoises,” says the University of Maine assistant professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology. “It’s very unique and special.”

The archipelago, a model system for biological research, has yielded wide-ranging insights into evolution. 

Charney says it’s important to improve forecasting of ecosystem responses to climate change on ocean islands to guide policymaking and conservation. Generally, island species are native and unique to their respective locations. And their extinction rates are disproportionately high relative to their geographical areas.

Charney used past satellite images of the islands to develop a simulated climate future. He calls it a “time-for-time” substitution model. Future climates are much better represented by analogs within the historical record, he says. 

The Galápagos’ simulated future is a warmer and wetter one. And that, says Charney, could have cascading ramifications for the archipelago and its inhabitants.

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