Galapagos National Park/AP
The Sierra Negra Volcano of Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands.

Volcanic Eruption Threatens Already At-Risk Galapagos

April 14, 2009 10:30 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Lava and smoke have flooded Fernandina Island, threatening unique wildlife. The eruption calls attention to an area already trying to balance conservation efforts with heavy tourism.

Iguanas, Sea Lions in Danger

The La Cumbre volcano, situated on uninhabited Fernandina Island, erupted on April 11 for the first time in four years. The volcano's last eruption occurred in May 2005, but Fernandina has more volcanic activity than any other island in the Galapagos, according to The Associated Press. Species such as "marine and terrestrial iguanas, sea lions and other fauna" are most at risk from the flowing lava.

Video footage of the eruption from Blinkx.com displays the stark contrast between the smoky, fiery area surrounding La Cumbre and the serene Galapagos landscape beyond.
Last May, the Cerro Azul volcano erupted on the Galapagos archipelago's largest island, according to Reuters. Giant tortoises, some up to 100 years old, were especially threatened and prompted the arrival of National Park workers. The eruption highlighted the hardships, both natural and otherwise, confronting the region's wildlife. Eliecer Cruz, governor of the islands and a conservationist, told Reuters, "This is a natural event and we should let nature go its course, but because they (the tortoises) have been almost exterminated by humans we have to do something."

The Galapagos Islands were added to the UNESCO World Heritage "in danger list" in June 2008, particularly because of its "fragile ecosystem and the negative effects of a sizable growth in tourism," according to The New York Times. Hoards of visitors to the Galapagos are causing serious damage to the unique flora and fauna there, according to Dr. Graham Watkins, the executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

"Unless we start to make fundamental changes right now, in the next 10 to 15 years we will see the Galápagos suffer from both economic and environmental degradation," Watkins told The New York Times. He also called the current tourism model in the region "unsustainable."

Background: Galapagos geography and volcanic activity

The Galapagos Conservancy shares how the islands were discovered, explores the geography of the archipelago and launches a discussion of the impacts of human development on Galapagos wildlife. Located 600 miles off Ecuador's coast, the Galapagos contains 13 main islands, along with six smaller islands and "hundreds of tiny islets." Population and number of visitors remained relatively consistent from colonization in the 1800s until the mid 1990s when tourism and immigration began booming, having "negative consequences for Galapagos flora and fauna."

Fernandina is the westernmost and most active volcanic island in the Galapagos, according to the Galapagos Conservation Trust, which has a map of the Galapagos archipelago. As a result of its volcanic activity, most of Fernandina "formed of new lava with very little vegetation, and there is only one visitor site."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains the causes of volcanic eruptions and how island chains like the Galapagos are created. So-called hotspot volcanic activity "occurs where one of earth's outer tectonic plates moves over an unusually hot part of the earth's mantle," according to the NOAA.

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Reference Material

Historical Context: Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands


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