At Baltimore's National Aquarium, Climate Change Presents Challenges Inside And Out Three years ago, the aquarium decided it would find a sanctuary in the wild for its prized pod of dolphins. But then climate change complicated the plan entirely.
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At Baltimore's National Aquarium, Climate Change Presents Challenges Inside And Out

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

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

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

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/720041305/720438329" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A dolphin swims by at an exhibit at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The aquarium hopes to relocate its dolphins to a sanctuary off the coast of Florida or in the Caribbean. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

A dolphin swims by at an exhibit at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The aquarium hopes to relocate its dolphins to a sanctuary off the coast of Florida or in the Caribbean.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is located right on the city's Inner Harbor. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is located right on the city's Inner Harbor.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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.

The dolphins at the National Aquarium are being prepped for release into a sanctuary. But things like fierce storms and algal blooms have made it harder for aquarium officials to find a permanent home. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

The dolphins at the National Aquarium are being prepped for release into a sanctuary. But things like fierce storms and algal blooms have made it harder for aquarium officials to find a permanent home.

Claire Harbage/NPR

The umbrellas near the National Aquarium's dolphin tanks are meant to prepare the animals for what life will eventually be like in an open air sanctuary. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

The umbrellas near the National Aquarium's dolphin tanks are meant to prepare the animals for what life will eventually be like in an open air sanctuary.

Claire Harbage/NPR

"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.

A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle that was rescued to the aquarium's turtle rehabilitation center will eventually be returned to the ocean. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle that was rescued to the aquarium's turtle rehabilitation center will eventually be returned to the ocean.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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.

The aquarium rescues sea turtles that get stuck and injured in and around Cape Cod, Mass. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

The aquarium rescues sea turtles that get stuck and injured in and around Cape Cod, Mass.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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 aquarium has constructed a prototype of a floating wetlands in the harbor outside the building which is designed to help protect against storm surges. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

The aquarium has constructed a prototype of a floating wetlands in the harbor outside the building which is designed to help protect against storm surges.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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.

Megan Anderson, an employee of the aquarium, talks with curious visitors about a glowing globe that displays different worldwide maps, one of which show the weather. Educators at the museum talk explicitly with visitors about climate change and ways they can reduce their impact on the environment. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Megan Anderson, an employee of the aquarium, talks with curious visitors about a glowing globe that displays different worldwide maps, one of which show the weather. Educators at the museum talk explicitly with visitors about climate change and ways they can reduce their impact on the environment.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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."

Visitors watch creatures swim inside the aquarium including Calypso, a three-legged green sea turtle. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Claire Harbage/NPR

Visitors watch creatures swim inside the aquarium including Calypso, a three-legged green sea turtle.

Claire Harbage/NPR