Climate change could further threaten endangered sea turtles’ futures, experts say

Our Changing Climate

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — The sea turtles that nest and hatch along Georgia’s beaches could face negative impacts of climate change.

It’s been reported over the summer that sea turtles have actually broken nesting records along beaches in the southeastern United States, and scientists say that conservation methods implemented decades ago are the cause of the boom in egg-laying, according to the Associated Press.

There’s been about an eight-fold increase in the sea turtle population since the 1970s.

Most sea turtle species are considered endangered, so this is great news. However, climate change effects may still threaten their future, experts say.

Loggerhead nesting has increased since the 1970s, but the impacts of climate change could impact that progress. (Image/Caretta Research Project)

The Savannah-based Caretta Research Project, a non-profit organization that has studied sea turtles on Wassaw Island and in Savannah for the past 47 years, has noticed some of the impacts on a larger, global scale. 

“It’s hard to see the impact of climate change on one spot like Wassaw,” Caretta Research Director Dr. Joe Pfaller said. “But the Caretta Research Project works with a global network, and as a global community, the sea turtle community sees the impacts of climate change year after year.”

The main climate change-related impacts researchers have observed are the effects of temperature as well as effects from increased storm activity and global tidal changes, Pfaller told News 3.

Threats from rising global temperatures

Sea turtles, he said, have what’s called temperature-dependent sex determination. 

This means they don’t have XX-XY gametes, like mammals do. Instead, they have temperature.

We can minimize our impact and give sea turtles and other coastal marine life and wildlife in Georgia a chance.”

Dr. Joe Pfaller, Caretta Research Director

A rise in global temperatures means the prominence of more female turtles, Pfaller said.

Image/Caretta Research Project

“While this isn’t a major problem for Georgia yet, in places like Florida and Queensland, Australia, they’re starting to see nests that produce all-female turtles,” he said.

It’s a threat closely being monitored in the sea turtle community. 

Currently, Georgia produces about 70% female sea turtles, Pfaller said.

“We’re still producing quite a lot of males right now, but as those temperatures continue to rise, we might start seeing more and more of what we call ‘feminization’ of the hatchlings, which over the long term, could cause big problems for the populations,” he said.

There are places around the world that are attempting to use shading and other methods to cool the nests, which could help produce more male sea turtles. 

“Right now, the best thing we could do is try to look more long term and try to get those temperatures from rising more steeply,” Pfaller said.

“Turtles have experienced temperature changes in the past, but not at this speed, so if we can slow things down, it’ll give them a better chance to adapt along the way,” he added.

Impacts of more intense storms

“Hurricane Dorian just came through, and it killed about the last 40 nests in our season, and it’s about probably the same for every other beach in Georgia,” Pfaller said. “With the frequency of those hurricanes increasing, we start losing more and more hatchlings to those hurricanes.”

As a result, researchers are taking a closer look at how the climate is changing in terms of storms and sea level rise.

“As sea level rises, those islands in the past have been able to shift, ebb and flow with the changes in tide and the changes in sea level, and so the nesting beach is maintained,” Pfaller said.

“We’re going to see a migration of our beaches and our salt marshes inland,” Alex Muir, the advocacy coordinator for a Coastal Georgia protection and conservation organization called One Hundred Miles said.

“When we don’t allow room for that habitat to migrate, there’s going to be issues with populations of our wildlife, like our sea turtles and our shore birds, being stressed because they won’t have a habitat to move to in order to nest and feed.”

Image/Caretta Research Project

Pfaller added that the building of seawalls, homes and hotels along the beaches limits the moving space of the islands and coastal communities.

“Georgia has done a really good job of protecting its coastline. There’s only a couple of islands that are actually developed,” he said.

“You look at some counties in Florida, where they put seawalls right up along the beach, then that hurricane comes and wipes all the sand away, and now there’s no place for the turtles to nest,” he added.

Pfaller told News 3 that another major part of the climate change puzzle is education — “getting people in the classrooms, teaching them about the climate and how it changes based on what the chemicals are in the atmosphere and how we affect those changes.”

“That’s a really big thing that we can teach our kids and all of our adults, as well as how can you help the problem?” Pfaller said. “How can you limit your number of times you drive to work each week, or how much plastic waste you’re putting in the ocean?”

“All these sort of things are so that we can minimize our impact and give sea turtles and other coastal marine life and wildlife in Georgia a chance,” he said. 

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