At Baltimore’s National Aquarium, Climate Change Presents Challenges Inside And Out

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Three years ago, the National Aquarium in Baltimore made a big announcement. After a public backlash against marine animal parks brought on by the documentary Blackfish, the aquarium decided to move its prized pod of dolphins to a first-of-its-kind sanctuary.

They set a 2020 deadline to find the perfect spot either off the coast of Florida or in the Caribbean — one where the water is warm, the area is protected and the climate is calm.

But now, that 2020 move is no longer realistic, according to John Racanelli, the aquarium's CEO. And that's due in large part to a factor beyond its control: climate change.

Of the more than 50 sites the aquarium has surveyed, so far not one has been deemed safe enough from things like fierce storms and algal blooms, both projected to worsen as temperatures rise.

"There's big pieces of it that you just can't predict," says Leigh Clayton, vice president of animal care and welfare at the aquarium. "We're looking at precedents. How often do areas get hit by hurricanes, where do the hurricanes tend to go to land, what has historical damage been?"

"The reality is we really don't know," Clayton says. "We're all just figuring this out."

And it's not just a problem for the aquarium's dolphins. Below the dolphin arena is the turtle rehabilitation center, essentially a triage site for so-called "cold-stunned" turtles. These are sea turtles that have been suddenly exposed to water so cold, their systems effectively shut down.

The aquarium has seen more and more of these sick turtles over the years. With warming waters, says Racanelli, sea turtles are venturing further north and winding up in areas that experience more brutal cold snaps. Sea turtles that follow the Gulf Stream, for example, are now ending up trapped in the hook of Cape Cod, which is where most of the aquarium's recovering turtles come from.

Outside of the aquarium, climate change has introduced an entirely separate set of challenges for Racanelli and his staff. With its prime location right on Baltimore's inner harbor, the aquarium is projected to face near-daily flooding by the end of the century. Last year, the city filed a lawsuit against 26 fossil fuel companies seeking compensation for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and storm surges.

The issues facing the aquarium — and the city more broadly — add to the myriad ways that climate change is reshaping life in communities across the country. As part of an ongoing series on how Americans have begun to adapt, NPR has been traveling the East Coast, hearing from Miami residents worried about the climate's impact on gentrification; doctors who are concerned about what a warming planet will mean for their patients; and developers and property owners who are increasingly focused on guarding against rising seas.

The aquarium is among those property owners assessing how their building might fare in the future. To address rising sea levels, they have built a prototype of a floating wetland that sits in the harbor and is designed to help protect against storm surges.

The 400-square-foot patch of vegetation is also designed with the local ecosystem in mind. Built-in pipes help to aerate the water, and aquarium officials say it provides a better habitat for animals than other flood mitigation tools, like concrete sea walls.

"What we really want is diversity, and the wetland does that," says Charmaine Dahlenburg, the director of field conservation at the National Aquarium. "It has microhabitats, so there's going to be different types of animals that stop by," she says.

The aquarium hopes to raise enough money to eventually roll out 14,000 square feet of floating wetland, including docks for visitors to see it up close.

The aquarium sees over a million visitors each year, which, according to Racanelli, gives them a unique platform to engage with and inform guests.

"It's become an emerging role for aquariums throughout the country and throughout the world to help people better understand some of the big issues that are facing us," he says.

Educators at the museum talk explicitly with visitors about climate change and ways they can reduce their impact on the environment.

"It's not a looming threat. It's a present reality," says Racanelli. "Whether it's where we place our dolphin sanctuary, how we evolve here on our inner harbor location in Baltimore ... there are steps that we can take and we have to take them. Not soon but now."

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