Climate Change Impacting Sea Turtles

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What Mass Audubon describes as a, “weather system of gale force winds” is now causing frozen turtles to wash up on New England beaches. Nearly 190 of these turtles were found off the coast of Cape Cod after record low temperatures this previous week.

The cold temperatures combined with high tide resulted in these turtles becoming “incapacitated,” (a phenomenon known as cold stunning) with many of them dead. Several were still in the water, retrieved by volunteers and workers. Mass Audubon states that they’ve found an approximate 400 dead turtles this season alone.

It’s believed that the change in climate has resulted in this phenomenon. A warmer climate has allowed these turtles to travel longer geographic distances, arriving in the area closer to November than in original recordings of their arrival in October, in the 1990s.

Number of cold-stunned sea turtles recovered by Wellfleet Bay by year. Warm water anomalies likely bring more turtles into Cape Cod Bay in some years, e.g. 2014.

Number of cold-stunned sea turtles recovered by Wellfleet Bay by year. Warm water anomalies likely bring more turtles into Cape Cod Bay in some years, e.g. 2014. Source: Mass Audubon

Wallace J. Nichols, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences and sea turtle biologist commented, “Sea turtles are moving further north along our coast, or south to the southern hemisphere, as waters are warming and they are expanding their ranges…So when we get these quick swings from warm to cooler, the turtles that haven’t made it south definitely get into trouble.”

A cold stunned sea turtle floats at the surface in shallow water. Credit: NOAA.

A cold stunned sea turtle floats at the surface in shallow water. Credit: NOAA.

While conservation efforts have attempted to stabilize the sea turtle population, allowing them to make their way to new locations, there’s no preventing these more extreme changes in temperature that are causing these turtles to freeze in their migration path.

Nichols stated further, “Climate change is impacting sea turtles very clearly.” Further adding that warmer temperatures are essentially “cooking” turtle eggs before they can hatch.

A study by Mass Audubon provides further evidence that cold-stun stranding of sea turtles is increasing and will continue to increase with the change in climate.

View Mass Audubon’s official release here.

Cold-stunned green sea turtles recovering in holding tank at Texas State Aquarium. Credit: NOAA.

Cold-stunned green sea turtles recovering in holding tank at Texas State Aquarium. Credit: NOAA.

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