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Rescue to Release, Part 1: Is Climate Change Increasing Cold-Stunned Turtles?

Every year, when cold weather starts to hit the East Coast, hundreds of endangered, cold-stunned sea turtles wash ashore in Cape Cod Bay.

Published January 17, 2019

The National Aquarium works with conservation partners, including the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, to rescue these stranded sea turtles.

While rescue and rehabilitation efforts over the past few decades have helped increase population levels, these fragile species are facing another threat along with cold-stunning: climate change.

Research from Mass Audubon, collected by Wellfleet Bay volunteers, shows the number of cold-stunned sea turtles found on the shores of Cape Cod Bay has increased over the past 10 years. Hundreds of sea turtles now strand every year, in comparison to the few dozen typically found in the 1970s and 1980s.

Cold-stunning is not a new phenomenon, but, partly because of climate change, it has increased in occurrence. Every year, sea turtles follow warm waters up the East Coast, and experts believe that they’re now lingering for longer periods of time and farther north as waters warm, not realizing the risk of cold snaps and winter storms are still present. Experts also believe that more frequent and severe storms—another effect of climate change—are causing traveling sea turtles to be blown off course more often, putting them at an increased risk of being affected by cold snaps.

Cold-stunned rescue turtle

As the sea turtles are unexpectedly hit with colder water and try to swim back down south, they often become trapped within the jutting, hook-shaped shoreline of the Cape. When they try to find their way back to the open ocean and cold temperatures hit, their body temperature slowly declines until they’re too sluggish to swim to safety, and they wash ashore.

Sea turtle rescue is just the first step of each turtle’s journey toward recovery and their eventual return to their ocean home.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Rescue to Release, where we’ll show you the medical care we provide to cold-stunned sea turtles.

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