Climate Change & Sea Turtles in Costa Rica

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Climate Change & Sea Turtles in Costa Rica

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Costa Rica is breathtaking in its biodiversity. Rainforests drip with clicking invertebrates, and seas teem with swirling fish. Costa Rica has shores on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and with the rainforest in between, it's no wonder the country vibrates with such incredible flora and fauna. Here, you'll find six species of felines, four species of primates, and five of the remaining seven species of sea turtles, including the distinguished baulas.

Baula is the term Central Americans use to describe leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). Between the months of March and July, female baulas can be found struggling up the beaches on the Caribbean shores of Costa Rica. Agile in the water, they labor in the sand to follow an ancient path out of the ocean. Under the cover of night, they haul themselves to what they hope is a safe site, and use their rear flippers to scrape out a deep nest chamber. With a last burst of energy, they will lay their gleaming white piles of soft, leathery eggs.

The promise of a new generation.

Lying narrowly between two giant oceans, Costa Rica and the baulas stand to lose much from climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that sea levels may rise more than three feet in Costa Rica by 2100. Rising tides have already reduced the area of the shoreline on which the turtles can nest. On this narrowing strip of beach, tides are now more likely to inundate the nests, leading to lower hatches, or even erosion of entire nests.

Costa Rica's temperatures are expected to rise by seven degrees by 2100. Sea turtle embryos are exquisitely sensitive to temperature. A shift of just 10 degrees can cause turtle embryos to shift from 100% male to 100% female. Turtle hatchlings, prompted by natural selection, will only emerge from their nest if the sand temperature is below 90 degrees. But as air temperatures rise, sand temperatures can remain at this level until well past dusk.

Some scientists have concluded that if climate change continues, the leatherback population will likely decrease by at least 7% per decade. 

But for the past twenty years, EPI Costa Rica Sea Turtle Ecology students have been there, conducting their own ritual on the beaches of Pacaure Reserve. As darkness cloaks the shores, EPI students and researchers gather to begin their nightly turtle censuses. They're there to document every nesting leatherback as she painstakingly digs her nest--and releases her eggs. They're there to help this prehistoric species survive into the future.

If she has located her nest in a vulnerable location -- due to tides or potential human intrusion, EPI students will lie on their bellies in the wet sand, and collect the eggs carefully as they are laid. These eggs may go to a hatchery, or be placed gently into a freshly human-excavated nest made by another EPI student. Last year alone, EPI students relocated 343 leatherback nests to safe locations. They also removed 277 lbs. of trash, mostly plastic debris, to clear a safe pathway to the sea for leatherback hatchlings.

And then? EPI students released 17,366 sea turtle hatchlings to the sea.

What do these opportunities for climate action mean for the students? For many, the biggest takeaways are empowerment, the chance to see themselves as leaders, and the unique relationships that are created through field-based learning. They're building leadership, teamwork, and cooperation--in a truly meaningful way.

Eva, a local Costa Rican student reflected on her EPI experience: 

"I was nervous the entire trip, but when classes and censuses started, I was fascinated. As soon as I saw the first turtle, I almost cried. I never imagined how giant and majestic they are. Little by little, we are learning how to help, and what not to do to affect the turtles or the environment. There has been a change in my perspective. I think about our ecological footprint, and I know that no matter how small the effort to help the environment, there will be a change."

In truth, Costa Rica is an incredible success story for a country once ravaged by deforestation. Thanks to reforestation and environmental protection, Costa Rica is now 52% forested, adding 10% to its forests in the last decade. Costa Rica continues to pioneer the way to a sustainable future for humans and our earth. Most recently, they achieved nearly 100% renewable energy and in 2019, Costa Rica became the first country to officially declare they will be carbon-neutral by 2021.

For twenty years, EPI has helped fund youth from this progressive country to become empowered science and conservation leaders by connecting them with local conservation organizations and international research institutions. 

This year, through our Connect4Climate campaign, we are strengthening the climate literacy components of our courses even more. We're focusing on research and service projects that benefit climate-threatened species and inform conservation policy. Students are learning how climate change is affecting them and their local ecosystems, and they're empowered to get involved in local conservation efforts.

The leatherback night censuses continue.

Learn more about the impacts of EPI's work in Costa Rica here, and if you're inspired to help empower the next generation of climate and conservation leaders, please visit our Connect4Climate page.

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