Climate Change Pushing Sea Turtles, Crabs, Sharks Toward the Poles

Terrell Johnson
Published: August 15, 2013

Sea Turtles

Sea Turtles

A Hawksbill sea turtle swims in the waters off Lady Elliot Island, Australia, in January 2012. The world's changing climate is forcing ocean species like sea turtles to migrate to cooler places at a pace nearly 10 times faster than is happening with species on land. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

  • Sea Turtles
  • Fishing Villages
  • Salmon
  • King Crabs
  • Sharks
  • Tuna
  • Tuna
  • Whale Sharks

The sight of sea turtle tracks along the beach may one day be a thing of the past across much of the U.S. coastline, as warming ocean temperatures are forcing sea turtles and many other ocean creatures to find new homes in cooler waters, according to a study published this month in the journal Nature Climate Change.

More than 80 percent of the world's marine life is responding to warming waters and the changing chemistry of the oceans by migrating to different places and by changing their breeding and feeding patterns, the study reports.

Some species have migrated as much as 600 miles from where they were once abundant just a few decades ago, the study also found, noting that ocean life is responding to climate change by moving to new places as much as 10 times faster than species that live on land.

“Marine species are responding much, much faster than [land] species," said Ben Halpern, a research biologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara and one of the study's co-authors. "Which is both surprising and worrisome because it has consequences – some of which we know about, and some of which will only unfold in the near future."

Already, some of the smallest and most important life in the oceans have experienced perhaps its biggest shifts. Phytoplankton, the tiny single-celled plants that make up the base of the food chain for all life in the oceans, have moved as much as 1,000 miles away from their previous locations.

Why is this important? Because phytoplankton blooms – bursts of explosive growth in their populations along the world's coastlines -- serve as a kind of ocean buffet, the food source upon which all larger marine life depends. "These images you see in National Geographic of these massive concentrations of animals in the oceans is driven by these blooms in phytoplankton," Halpern says.

"So this (climate change) is moving the food source, the base of the food web, a thousand miles across the ocean" he adds. "If you’re lucky, if you’re a bigger fish, you can track that, but maybe you can’t and then you’re out of luck."

Not only are these blooms occurring in different places, they're also happening earlier than in the past, notes Carrie Kappel, a marine conservation biologist at UCSB and a study co-author. "Spring is coming earlier, summer is coming earlier," she said. "And so all those ocean events are starting to happen earlier too, like the way things are happening earlier on land."

These changes may have major impacts on where and whether we'll continue to find the kinds of fish people love to eat, especially in the U.S., says Frank Schwing, an oceanographer with NOAA’s National Marine Fishery Service and another of the study's co-authors, noting that ocean animals are "much more sensitive" to changes like these than land animals.

Over the last several decades, he notes, some species have moved up when they reproduce by as much as a month. "So if the timing of the spring bloom is a month earlier, species who have evolved to take advantage of [it] may no longer find it there," he adds. "Animals hatch out and the food is not there anymore."

(MORE: This Is What Global Warming Looks Like)

That's what's driving the fast migration of species, Schwing said. "Everything from salmon to grouper to the things we catch recreationally as anglers, as well as the fish for our dinner tables and restaurants -- those are the ones that seem to be most responsive, they move the most rapidly."

This is leading to a "scrambling" of ecosystems throughout the oceans, Kappel said, in which some species keep pace and others get left behind, particularly those trapped in land-locked inland seas. Species that can move quickly will invade waters where they've never lived before, while others will be lost forever.

“It’s an uncontrolled experiment that we don’t know how it’s all going to play out," she adds. "It’s never been seen at this scale or at this pace on our planet before."

The world's changing ocean habitats will also have a big impact on the millions of people living in the small coastal villages and towns that depend on the ocean for their survival, Halpern said, adding that "even though humans are very adaptable, they learn quickly, there are some things that are very slow to change."

"You can't just pick up an entire fishing village and move it 200 miles north and plop it down again," he noted. "People have embedded their infrastructure, their heritage, their culture, their generational knowledge in a particular place – and that can't be moved very easily."

Read the full study at Nature Climate Change.


MORE: Marine Life Under Threat from Climate Change

Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic

Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic

From our partners

Stretching from the tip of the Yucatan peninsula to the islands off the coast of Honduras, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. More than 60 species of coral and 500 species of fish, many endangered, live along the nearly 700-mile-long reef. (Thomas Wiborg/

  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic
  • Largest Coral Reef In The Atlantic

Featured Blogs

Hurricane Science Legend Dr. Robert Simpson Dies at Age 102

By Dr. Jeff Masters
December 19, 2014

Dr. Robert Simpson, one of the originators of the familiar Saffir-Simpson scale, passed away peacefully in his sleep today at the age of 102. He was the director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) from 1967 - 1974.

November 2014 Global Weather Extremes Summary

By Christopher C. Burt
December 18, 2014

November was globally the 7th warmest such on record according to NOAA and 8th according to NASA (see Jeff Master’s blog for more about this). It was a cold month in the U.S. with some phenomenal lake-effect snowstorms. A powerful storm, dubbed a ‘Medicane’ formed in the Mediterranean Sea. Deadly floods occurred in Morocco, Italy, and Switzerland. It was the warmest November on record for Australia, Italy, Austria and much of Southeast Asia.Below are some of the month’s highlights.

Live Blog: Tracking Hurricane Arthur as it Approaches North Carolina Coast

By Shaun Tanner
July 3, 2014

This is a live blog set up to provide the latest coverage on Hurricane Arthur as it threatens the North Carolina Coast. Check back often to see what the latest is with Arthur. The most recent updates are at the top.

Tropical Terminology

By Stu Ostro
June 30, 2014

Here is some basic, fundamental terminology related to tropical cyclones. Rather than a comprehensive and/or technical glossary, this represents the essence of the meaning & importance of some key, frequently used terms.

2013-14 - An Interesting Winter From A to Z

By Tom Niziol
May 15, 2014

It was a very interesting winter across a good part of the nation from the Rockies through the Plains to the Northeast. Let's break down the most significant winter storms on a month by month basis.

What the 5th IPCC Assessment Doesn't Include

By Angela Fritz
September 27, 2013

Melting permafrost has the potential to release an additional 1.5 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and could increase our global average temperature by 1.5°F in addition to our day-to-day human emissions. However, this effect is not included in the IPCC report issued Friday morning, which means the estimates of how Earth's climate will change are likely on the conservative side.