Gene Feldman is Going Home for the First Time

July 16th, 2009 by Mike Carlowicz
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“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  — T.S. Eliot

It has been 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin, and 150 since the publication of his world-changing work, On the Origin of Species. It has been 50 years since the creation of the international Charles Darwin Foundation and the establishment of the Galapagos National Park by the government of Ecuador.

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The Galapagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands more than 700 km (430 miles) off the west coast of Ecuador. (NASA image courtesy MODIS

And it has been 25 years since Gene Feldman made the cover of Science magazine with his first paper about the living evolutionary and environmental experiment that is the Galapagos archipelago.

Now a NASA oceanographer, Feldman was studying imagery from the Coastal Zone Color Scanner on NASA’s Nimbus 7 satellite while working on his doctoral research at the State University of New York. From his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa, Feldman had been curious about why some regions around oceanic islands were more productive than others. His interest was piqued when he learned that there was a NASA satellite that might help unravel the mystery.

Dr. Gene Carl Feldman

Dr. Gene Carl Feldman (Photograph courtesy NASA GSFC.)

After building a data set of some of the first ocean color observations of the region, Feldman and his colleagues believed they saw a strong correlation between the changes in the patterns and abundance of floating marine plants (phytoplankton) during the 1982-83 El Niño and the decline of seabirds and fur seals.

What was happening in the sea – measured by ocean scientists in the currents, temperatures, chemistry, and plankton abundance – was affecting the life in the water and on land. And all of it was visible, for the first time, from space.

Chlorophyll concentrations during the 1998 El Nino/La Nina as seen by SeaWiFS.

El Niño and La Niña, large-scale shifts in winds and currents in the equatorial Pacific, have dramatic effects on the ecosystems of the Galapagos. These satellite maps from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) show

At the time, Feldman wrote: “Satellite ocean color observations, with their synoptic, broad area coverage, place the often limited surface measurements into a broader perspective.” Feldman and colleagues have spent the past three decades building on those remote observations of the Galapagos and of the oceans worldwide.

Of all the places in the world, there’s no place like the Galapagos. The 19 volcanic islands are relatively new in geologic time, ranging from one to four million years old, with new islands still sprouting. They sit along the equator, between 700 to 1000 kilometers (435 to 621 miles) from the nearest land masses, and the isolation has also made the islands a natural laboratory for evolution.

The Galapagos are most famous for their iguanas, tortoises, blue-footed Boobies and, of course, Darwin’s finches. “You’ll find tropical, sub-tropical, and almost Antarctic species,” Feldman says. “It’s the only place where you’ll find both penguins and coral reefs.”

Iguanas, tortoises, and finches are some of the most distinctive animals that have evolved many new species on the isolated Galapagos islands.

Iguanas, tortoises, and finches are some of the most distinctive animals that have evolved many new species on the isolated Galapagos islands. (Photographs ©

The marine life is influenced by unique oceanographic conditions. Specifically, the deep “equatorial undercurrent,” or Cromwell Current, flows from the middle Pacific and slams into the islands, pushing up cool water and nutrients from the depths and into the shallower waters. Fingers of this water push east, between and beyond the islands, fertilizing the ocean on the leeward side and creating biological abundance and diversity in an area that might otherwise be barren.

The Cromwell Current stirs up the ocean on the west (leeward) side of the Galapagos, and brings cool, nutrient-rich water up from the ocean depths.

The Cromwell Current stirs up the ocean on the west (leeward) side of the Galapagos, and brings cool, nutrient-rich water up from the ocean depths. The nutrients nourish phytoplankton, which form the base of the ocean’s food web. Many fish, birds, and marine mammals depend on the phytoplankton. In the map above of sea surface temperature (bottom), cool upwelling waters are colored purple. Thriving phytoplankton populations are indicated by high chlorophyll concentrations (top), colored green and yellow. These maps were acquired by NASA’s

For five decades, the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) has been promoting and supporting research to understand and monitor biodiversity in this natural laboratory. From July 20 to 24, CDF will take stock of what has been learned in five decades, bringing together biologists, geologists, oceanographers, and historians for the Galapagos Science Symposium.

Feldman was invited to the symposium, taking him back to where it all began professionally. He has studied the islands from 600 kilometers (372 miles) up in space. He helped established a ground station on the islands to retrieve data from NASA’s SeaWifs instrument on Orbital Corporation’s SeaStar spacecraft. But he has never been there in person.

After the symposium, Gene will set out with John Morrison of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Stuart Banks of Charles Darwin Research Station, and other colleagues for a short research cruise. Under the auspices of the CDF and the Galapagos National Park Service, the team will conduct a systematic study of the oceanographic conditions that make the waters around Galapagos so fertile for life and the evolution of it. They will also look for signals of climate change and how it affects marine ecosystems.

Divers will map habitat and survey the reefs. Water sampling instruments will examine water chemistry, temperature, and the concentration of plankton. And, of course, remote sensing eyes from Feldman’s beloved satellites will capture the big picture. Throughout the trip, Gene will share his experiences through a series of blog entries on the NASA Earth Observatory.

He hopes to follow in Darwin’s footsteps and in the HMS Beagle’s wake. He has been reading the journals of Darwin and of Beagle Captain Robert Fitzroy – not just the published accounts, but the original, hand-written notebooks and logs. He has been reading the accounts of 19th century whalers who frequented the area. He wants his 2009 trip to be his own voyage of discovery.

“I feel like I know the Galapagos so well, but I also know that I don’t know them at all.”

Related Links

Who is Gene Feldman?

Charles Darwin Foundation

Ocean Color Web

SeaWiFS Project

Visible Earth: Galapagos Islands

Wolf Volcano: Galapagos

Life Returns to Galapagos after El Nino

US State Department congratulates the CDF for 50 years of work

2 Responses to “Gene Feldman is Going Home for the First Time”

  1. John Baxley says:

    Thank you for the blog I have just read. I have been a Darwin fan since I discovered his book at age 14. It somewhat confirmed that I was not the only Atheist in the world.

    I wish the Galapagos did not have so many tourist.

  2. Janie says:

    I was also very surprised to hear that the Galapagos has so many tourists. I guess I have a lot to learn about these remote islands, which in any case aren’t so remote anymore!

Notes from the Field