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Global Warming Threatens the Future of Ostional

By Adam Dietrich and Giordano Ciampini

Sea turtles are in real danger, and it’s not because of poaching; it’s because of global climate change.

According to Laura Brenes, a veterinarian with the Ostional Wildlife Refuge, rising temperatures could lead to either the death of hatchlings or the production of only one sex of turtles, likely female, which would effectively cause extinction.

“The reptiles have a temperature sex determination,” she explained. “Females are determined by sand temperatures between 30.5°-33° C, males are determined by sand between 28° to 30° C and temperatures above 35° C will kill the hatchlings.”

She reported that the sand temperature in Ostional gets close to 35° C during the dry season.

It's not just the sand temperature that turtle-lovers should worry about though, according to Randall Arauz, president of Pretoma (Sea Turtle Restoration Program). “We already know that higher sand temperatures breed more females,” he confirmed, but also noted, “If [ocean temperatures] change, it can affect the food chain here in Central America, and who knows what changes may happen. There's a lot of uncertainty.”

Warm waters flow from north and south toward the equator, where they meet and push further out away from the shore and into the sea. This results in new water from the bottom of the ocean rising to the top as an upwelling. Upwellings are rich in nutrients and allow the creation of algae, an essential food source for sea turtles.

“With the rise in ocean levels we see disappearance or destruction of nesting and feeding habitats,” he explained. “We may see the turtles seeking cooler regions by going either further north or further south in the nesting areas to compensate.”

At the turtle camp in Buena Vista Beach, this barrier was crafted to keep the
encroaching tide line away from the turtle hatcheries. Photo Arianna McKinney.
Turtle hatchery in Buena Vista beach. Photo Arianna McKinney.

It is an established fact that the Pacific is both warming and rising. The Common wealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia's national scientific body, reported in 2011 that ocean levels are currently rising at an average trend of 3.1mm per year.

Local Efforts to Compensate for the Changes

Efforts to protect the turtles and their nesting habitats are already underway. For example, at the turtle camp in Buena Vista Beach, a sand barrier was crafted with wood posts about two and a half years ago to keep the encroaching tide line away from the turtle hatcheries, according to Roy Hernandez Jimenez, administrator for the Protected Areas Volunteer Service Association (ASVO). 

In Ostional, another tactic is being implemented. Brenes said they will be planting trees along the length of the refuge between Punta India and Punta Ostional. “The tree barrier will provide shade in the upper part of the beach so the nests have shade and prevent the sun from hitting them directly all day.”

The trees will also serve to block out light from the community. “It's well-known that lights greatly affect the turtles, preventing the turtles from nesting and confusing the hatchlings, who don’t make it to the water because they follow the lights.”

In addition, Brenes said eggs laid by leatherback turtles in Ostional between October and April will be moved to a nursery where they’ll have a better chance of hatching. She explained that if the eggs are left in the beach area, they’ll have almost a 0% chance of hatching since the sand is very hot for them. 

In Brenes’ mind there is no doubt that the sea turtles are in danger and global climate change is the culprit. “With global warming in the future, many hatchlings won’t hatch,” she said. “People need to be conscious that global warming will kill lots of animals, but mainly reptiles and amphibians.”


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