A Peruvian Paradise, Sensitive to El Niño and Other Climate Effects

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Peruvian pelicans in the Paracas National Reserve perch where they can: on boats in the local harbor, on sea walls and, mostly, on Ballestas Islands, off the coast of the reserve. RHONA SCULLION

ICA, Peru — Located in the Pisco Province of the southern Ica region of Peru, the Paracas National Reserve is a Unesco World Heritage Site because of its rare natural diversity. Rich in marine life and wildlife, its unique ecosystem is one of the most biologically productive on the planet. Encompassing the Atacama Desert, the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains and subject to the influence of two currents — the cold Humboldt Current and El Niño Southern Oscillation — the natural equilibrium of Paracas is incredibly sensitive to the effects of global warming.

As the United Nations gathers a summit meeting on climate change that runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 to forge a universal treaty to mitigate the effects of warming temperatures worldwide, tourists will no doubt be flocking to Paracas, about 165 miles south of Lima, the capital, to savor its beauty. The photos here were taken during a trip to the region earlier this year.

Peruvian pelicans, top, gather in noisy flocks all over the Paracas region and across the border in Chile. Most often, they can be found all over the Ballestas Islands, just off the coast of the Paracas National Reserve. One of the 150 species of marine birds resident in the area, and with another 215 species of migratory birds spending large amounts of their time there, Paracas is a haven and a host to an incredibly diverse avian population. Their numbers include many rare species, such as the Humboldt penguin, American flamingo, Peruvian petrel and Peruvian tern. The Peruvian pelican is also classified as under threat because of a drastic decline in its numbers after a 1998 El Niño effect. Despite having stabilized in recent years, they remain vulnerable to the increasingly severe impact and frequency of Niños, naturally occurring events in the Pacific region that generate warm, nutrient-rich water, as well as assaults on their breeding grounds by fisherman and tourists.

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The Paracas Candelabra, a 595-foot tall geoglyph whose meaning is unknown. RHONA SCULLION

The Paracas Candelabra, above, also known as the Candelabra of the Andes, is one of the lesser-visited attractions in Pisco Bay. En route to the Ballestas Islands, the geoglyph is 595 feet tall and was made by digging a two-feet-deep trench in hardened sand and soil, with the design held into place by rocks and stones placed around the edges. The meaning of the glyph is unknown, although many theories have been entertained over time, including that it was a signpost for sailors and travelers or that it was a religious symbol. Archeologists have found pottery remains in the area dating back to 200 B.C., so it predates the more famous geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines, another Unesco site, in the Peruvian desert. While mainly safe from tourists or farmers because of its Unesco protection, the Candelabra is still in danger from natural forces. As sea levels continue to rise, flooding could be damaging, and severe sandstorms are not uncommon in the area.

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The Ballestas Islands offer an ideal home for sea lions, who need both to sun and to shelter in shade. RHONA SCULLION

Among the jagged dips and curves of the Ballestas Islands, barking sea lions, above, echo across the rocks as they sun themselves on small outcrops or shelter under caves or ledges. One of the 36 mammal species in the area, sea lion colonies are a popular sight for many tourists who take the boat tours around the uninhabited islands. The sea lions, however, are reliant on anchoveta (an anchovy) and other small fish in Pisco Bay as their main food source, so the lions’ population often varies with the fluctuating levels of the fish, who in turn are vulnerable to changes in the ocean temperature, to overfishing, pollution and El Niños. Extreme El Niños are being forecasted for this year.

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The Cathedral,  or La Catedral, was shaped over time by natural forces in which a bridge was formed to the mainland, but an earthquake severed the link in 2007. RHONA SCULLION

Curving gently out to sea and sitting between the Supay and Yumaque beaches, the Cathedral structure, above, is considered the pre-eminent example of the geological diversity along the Paracas peninsula. Viewed from a looking point on the mainland, the natural rock formation of La Catedral, as it is called in Spanish, was created over time as water, sand and wind wore away the stone to form a bridge with the mainland cliff-face. But after a rough earthquake shook Peru in 2007, the arch collapsed, severing the link between it and the mainland.

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The coppery yellow Atacama Desert contrasts with the iron-red sand of the shores of Playa Roja. RHONA SCULLION

As one of the most arid stretches of coast in the world, the bright yellow of the Atacama Desert meets the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean right on the shores of the Playa Roja, above. Stretching 335,000 hectares (about 1,300 square miles) along the coast, tourists are not allowed to walk on the red sand beaches in the Paracas National Reserve. To protect the sands, photographs are allowed to be taken only from the overhanging expanse of desert. The color of the sand originates from sediment in the surrounding cliffs, made of porphyry rocks. The Playa Roja has become the second-biggest tourist attraction in Peru, after Machu Picchu, but locals worry about the impacts of flooding, erosion and other global warming influences or just natural deterioration.

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