Water flow and the soil below

They continually sprout from a volcanic hotspot, over millions of years move with the tectonic plates and the entire time develop new niches for some of the most spectacular species of animals and plants that continue to evolve in front of our eyes. Their chronosequence, the slow development of forests over time, can be effectively teach us a lot about soil formation, how the water moves across a altitudinal gradient and how these natural processes are impacted by anthropogenic interference. In a small scale, they can help us understand processes that could affect fresh water production in the whole of the tropics. Galápagos is unique and special without a doubt.

The volcanic hotspot of the Galápagos islands is located to the west of the archipelago, where the island of Fernandina is currently sits on. They all have the same bedrock foundation but the chronosequence of each island ranges from older to newer depending on when they formed. This can tell us a lot about the geological historical patterns and structure of soil formation and rooting. Larger islands have a distinct altitudinal gradient that range from very arid to very humid. This generates a range of microclimates, as well as different soil types and densities all of which have an effect on water movement across the gradient.

Research carried out in collaboration with the GSC by Percy et al. (2010) describe how “The difference in the soil water content across elevations on Galápagos not only has implications for agricultural practices… but also provides an excellent opportunity for an analogous site in the tropics of spatially intensive soil moisture observations”. The goal is to understand things like underground aquifers, formation of soil and soil erosion, how precipitation levels and fog determine the type of soil in relation to altitude. But also to understand what the effects of larger climatic events like ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) and ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) have on the water cycle. These, as models, can help us understand better how to best preserve fresh water sources for in the Galápagos but applicable worldwide.


Fog is a very important component of high elevation ecosystems in the Galápagos. It promotes rain in the intermediate zones, where most of the agriculture takes place. Land use has changed over the years, many farms have been abandoned and invasive plants are taking over these cleared spaces. Also, the increase in tourism means more infrastructure and a greater demand for water and goods. “These disturbances all have direct and indirect impacts on hydrological processes and the partitioning of precipitation into evapotranspiration, runoff, and groundwater recharge” affirm the authors. If the fog goes, so do the best lands for food provision. Changing soil use to the extent where the water cycle is permanently disturbed could have disastrous consequences. Luckily for us (for the beautiful tropics and our future generations), we are gaining better understanding of this everyday.

But, conclusive decisions need to be turned into effective action fast. As climate change begins to feel more real everyday, we must ensure our fresh water sources are well managed. It is now in all of us to make sure we take care of every drop we use.


Percy, M.S., Schmitt, S.R., Riveros-Iregui, D.A. & Mirus, B.B. 2016. The Galápagos archipelago: a natural laboratory to examine sharp hydroclimatic, geologic and anthropogenic gradients. WIREs Water. 3:587–600. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1145.

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In 2022, the Galapagos Science Center (GSC) and the broader UNC & USFQ Galapagos Initiative will celebrate its 10th Anniversary. We are proud to announce the World Summit on Island Sustainability scheduled to be held on June 26–30, 2022 at the Galapagos Science Center and the Community Convention Center on San Cristobal Island.

The content of the World Summit will be distributed globally through social media and results documented through papers published in a book written as part of the Galapagos Book Series by Springer Nature and edited by Steve Walsh (UNC) & Carlos Mena (USFQ) as well as Jill Stewart (UNC) and Juan Pablo Muñoz (GSC/USC). The book will be inclusive and accessible by the broader island community including scientists, managers, residents, tourists, and government and non-government organizations.

While the most obvious goal of organizing the World Summit on Island Sustainability is to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the GSC and the UNC-USFQ Galapagos Initiative, other goals will be addressed through special opportunities created as part of our operational planning of the World Summit.

For instance, we seek to elevate and highlight the Galapagos in the island conservation discourse, seeking to interact with other island networks in more obvious and conspicuous ways to benefit the Galapagos Islands, the UNC-USFQ Galapagos Initiative, and the world. We will seize the opportunity to further develop the I2N2 – International Islands Network-of-Networks. Further, we wish to highlight and emphasize multiple visions of a sustainable future for the Galapagos Islands and we cannot do this alone. Therefore, engaging the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Tourism, the Government Council of Galapagos, the Galapagos National Park, and local Galapagos authorities, including government and non-government organizations and local citizen groups, is imperative.

The Galapagos Science Center on San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

Borrowing from Hawaii’s and Guam’s Green Growth Program and the Global Island Partnership, we wish to examine existing global programs that emphasize island sustainability and their incorporation into life, policies, and circumstances in the Galapagos Islands. We will also seek to enhance our connections with the institutional members of our International Galapagos Science Consortium and expand the Consortium through the recruitment of other member institutions. We will also work to benefit islands and their local communities by working with citizen groups as well as important NGOs who seek to improve the natural conditions in the Galapagos and diminish the impact of the human dimension on the future of Galapagos’ ecosystems.

Lastly, we will use the World Summit to benefit UNC & USFQ and our constituencies through a strong and vibrant communication plan about the World Summit, creating corporate relationships as sponsors, identifying funding goals through donors, and benefiting our study abroad program for student engagement in the Galapagos Islands. We plan to develop and issue a Galapagos Sustainability Communique after the World Summit that includes the vision and insights of all its participants for a sustainable Galapagos with applicability to global island settings.

We are eager to hear your perspective and have you join us at the World Summit on Island Sustainability!