The vast majority of the world’s oceans are warming, and that’s leading to all kinds of problems like vanishing coral reefs, amplified algae blooms, and ocean acidification. But in one very isolated and iconic spot, the opposite is occurring. Waters have been systematically cooling, and biodiversity is thriving.

Roughly 600 miles west of Ecuador, rising on volcanic ridges from the bottom of the eastern tropical pacific ocean, are the Galapagos islands. It’s said that the archipelago’s vast diversity of life inspired Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

Sea view of one of the islands of the Galapagos (Credit: Getty Images)

Dr. Kris Karnauskas from the University of Colorado, Boulder says the Galapagos can trace its uniqueness to the goldilocks’ geography and climate.

“We have penguins, and they are the only penguins in the Northern Hemisphere, are there on the Galapagos Islands,” Dr. Karnauskas told Chief Meteorologist and Climate Specialist Jeff Berardelli.

Group of penguins on a rock with an iguana in the background in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (Credit: Getty Images)

“Otherwise they strongly prefer much colder climates, but it’s [due to] a little twist in the ocean circulation of the tropics.”

That twist is the Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent – a deep, cool river of sorts, which moves in the opposite direction of the warm winds and surface water. The current starts in the Western Pacific and moves east along the Equator. When it hits the Galapagos Islands the refreshing water is forced upward bringing with it nutrients from the deep sea.

Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent

Karnauskas’ research has found that lately this effect is amplified.

“Over the past several decades that current has been strengthening, which is delivering colder water which also happens to be higher in nutrient content which is good for the ecosystem. That is bringing the essential ingredients for photosynthesis up to the sunlit part of the ocean which can lead to biological productivity, which is the whole base of the food web.”

A very colorful rock crab sits on a lava stone on the Galapagos Islands ecuador with the sea in the background (Credit: Getty Images)

His research has been able to identify the reason for the stronger undercurrent down below.
It’s an attempt to balance the increase in the east-to-west surface winds across the Tropical Pacific.

“What you do know is that there’s been a strengthening of the winds along the equator, so essentially a strengthening of the Trade Winds over the past few decades, but what you don’t know exactly why?” Berardelli asked.

“That’s right,” Karnauskas said. “It’s a wide-open question whether that trend is part of a response of the global climate system to our burning of fossil fuels or if that is perfectly natural variability that could reverse in 5 years from now.”

Hammerhead sharks swimming in tropical underwaters. Hammer shark in underwater world. Observation of wildlife ocean. Scuba diving adventure in Ecuador coast of the Galapagos.

Karnauskas says the Galapagos remains lucky for now – a refuge from the harmful effects of climate change, but he warns there’s no reason to expect this ocean current will win the long-term battle against global warming.

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador (Credit: Getty Images)

“We have a little bit of a glimpse into what could happen in the Galapagos Islands because El Niño and La Niña happen every few years and there’s this big hit to the system. When El Niño events come along the penguin population just gets decimated but it’s not because it’s so hot that they die – it’s not like that,” explains Karnauskas. “Their food supply has been cut off.”

The Galapagos penguins at Tagus Cove on Isabela Island (Credit: Getty Images)