Climate Change Threatens Flamingos, Coral Reefs, Sea Turtles, Penguins and More

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A new exhibit, "Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea," at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California (opened 29 March 2010) highlights species imperiled by a changing climate and ocean acidification. Of the two, ocean acidification is less well known. It means ocean pH levels are declining due to rising uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These two very different impacts on ocean life are caused by the same problem—rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

species threaten by climate change & ocean acidification

The exhibit highlights sea turtles, coral reefs, penguins and wading birds such as the Chilean flamingo, roseate spoonbill, scarlet ibis and white ibis—all threatened by a changing climate. Below are some facts from the exhibit about the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on ocean life.

  • Wading Birds: Wading birds [like those mentioned above] depend on shallow, coastal wetlands for food. Scientists tell us that by 2100, sea levels will rise several feet, flooding these same coastal wetlands, as well as beaches and coastal cities. Some coastal habitats, such as mangroves, will be able to move inland, but where roads, cities, and other coastal development block the way, coastal wetlands may disappear completely. 
  • Coral Reefs: A coral reef is a living oasis in otherwise deserted tropical waters—home to fishes, sea anemones and other animals. But changing ocean chemistry is damaging corals and other creatures in this complex community. Animals must adapt to survive, and that'll be easier for some than for others.  
  • Sea Turtles: On a mad dash for the sea, newly hatched sea turtles scurry to escape animals that want to eat them. But soon they'll face even bigger challenges. As oceans warm and sea levels rise, sea turtles will struggle to find enough food, mates and nesting beaches. And rising temperatures could also upset the balance of male and female turtles. Warmer eggs become females, while cooler eggs become males. If beaches get too warm, scientists worry there could be too many females—and not enough males to fertilize their eggs.
  • Penguins: Recent changes in ocean currents have put Magellanic penguins on a diet. The fish they eat move when ocean temperatures rise or fall, so hungry penguins need to swim farther and settle for any food they can find.

The Magellanic penguins featured in the Monterey Bay Aquarium exhibit includes “survivors from a group of birds that washed up on the shores of Brazil—thousands of miles from their breeding colonies in Patagonia.” Some scientists believe changing weather patterns caused the displacement (see, 2008 NY Times article, Baby Penguins Washing Up Dead in Brazil). Magellanic penguins are not the only penguins threatened by a changing climate. According to a recent study, colonies of Emperor and Adélie penguins are projected to face marked decline or disappearance (50% and 75% respectively) from warming ocean temperatures and declining sea ice.

Species all over the globe will face challenges from climate change and ocean acidification, including some in your own back yard. To learn more about impacted species, click here.

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