Globalization in the 21st century is posing new challenges to humans and natural ecosystems.
From climate change to increasingly mobile human populations to the global economy, the
relationship between humans and their environment is being modified in ways that will have long-term
impacts on ecological health, biodiversity, ecosystem goods and services, human activities, land
cover/land use change, and system sustainability. These changes and challenges are perhaps
nowhere more evident than on island ecosystems. Influenced by rising ocean temperatures, extreme
weather events, sea-level rise, tourism, population migration and development, and invasive species,
islands represent great vulnerabilities as well as considerable scientific opportunities for studying the
impacts and significance of global change on ecosystem processes and sustainability. From the
molecular to landscape levels, and over short- and long-term periods, the social-ecological forces of
change are impacting the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador in important and conspicuous ways.
In the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, human migration and tourism have brought profound
changes to the natural environment. With the rise in global wealth, pressure on unique island
ecosystems increases as more people seek to visit and experience these “special” places, thereby
introducing new threats to island sustainability. While the Galapagos Islands are geographically
remote, relatively small in size, irregular in shape, and varied in their morphological, ecological,
human, and topographic settings, they are also fragile and highly sensitive to changes caused by
natural and anthropogenic factors. Processes such as climate change, urbanization, agricultural
extensification, deforestation, and population migration are increasingly associated with the
“temporary” migration of tourists to islands. These forces and factors of change are often manifested
as drivers of land cover/land use change that occur across a range of space-time scales and whose
patterns and trajectories can be assessed through satellite remote sensing, geographic information
systems, and spatial simulation models.
While islands are fundamentally different in their geography, ecology, protection, and
intensity of human use and development, they share similar concerns, although at different scales
and within different socio-economic and political structures. As such, the Galapagos Islands, are
increasingly burdened by tensions between population-environment interactions and their
trajectories of change. The Galapagos Initiative, a strategic partnership between the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, highlights what is being
done to address the challenges to sustainability in a world-renowned National Park, Marine Reserve,
and World Heritage Site. The Galapagos Science Center is dedicated to the study of population,
health, and environment in the Galapagos Islands to address the complex interactions among the
social, terrestrial, and marine environments and the forces of change.