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

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In our ongoing series on how the East Coast is adapting to climate change, we traveled this past week to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. This institution is facing multiple climate change-related challenges, both outside and inside the building.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, I'm at the dolphin show, but it's changed over the years. There's no disco music, no synchronized jumping. It's mostly educational now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Dolphins need to be physically fit, like us. How do we accomplish that goal? Exercise.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then Dr. Leigh Clayton introduces me to the Atlantic bottlenose pod.

LEIGH CLAYTON: Jade is the mom of Foster, who is one of our males. And then Chesapeake and Spirit and Maya...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's the head of animal care and welfare at the aquarium. And she says they've decided to relocate the pod to give them a better life outside in their native habitat. The dolphins will still be in a controlled environment, but one that is better for them.

CLAYTON: It really kind of takes the pressure off of us to create intellectually stimulating and physically stimulating environments for them and allows the natural habitat to do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So like many retirees, the pod is going to Florida, which is where the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is originally from. At least that's the plan. But the aquarium has hit some snags. One of the issues is climate change. It's creating bigger, more powerful storms. So they've been doing some modeling to see where the safest place for the new enclosure will be.

CLAYTON: How often do areas get hit by hurricanes? Where do the hurricanes tend to go to land? What has historical damage been? But we also need to keep in mind that there are some factors that may change, and we just can't predict them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's the wider issue with climate change. It's hard to make the right decision when you can't exactly calculate the effects. And while they're letting go of the dolphins, they're taking in more sea turtles.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: We go down stairs behind the dolphin arena to what looks like a deep indoor swimming pool.

CLAYTON: So this is our sea turtle rehabilitation area. You can...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inside the pool are a few turtles, numbers on their backs, wading slowly through the shallow pools. Here, they care for what are called cold-stunned turtles - turtles that have been suddenly exposed to water so cold, they get really sick.

CLAYTON: They kind of shut down. They can't swim. They don't metabolize properly. They're more likely to get infections - things like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The aquarium has seen more and more cold-stunned turtles recently. Clayton says climate change is a likely factor, with sudden changes in the water.

CLAYTON: When we've got nice, warm temperatures, and then the temperature drops very suddenly, that can catch the turtles unaware.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's another way in which the aquarium and its resources are having to adapt to climate change.

Outside, another experiment in mitigation is underway. The aquarium sits right on Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a bustling area with shops and restaurants, and with water lapping just a few feet from the aquarium's doors. Studies show that the Inner Harbor is likely to flood almost daily due to sea level rise by the end of the century.

CHARMAINE DAHLENBURG: You're welcome to come out...


DAHLENBURG: ...To get a better look.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charmaine Dahlenburg is the director of field conservation at the aquarium. She's standing beside what's called a floating wetland. It's a 400-square-foot prototype, a floating patch of marsh grasses and plants. And underneath are pipes that aerate the water. The aquarium's plan is for more artificial wetlands to fill the harbor around the building.

DAHLENBURG: So they prevent flooding. They lessen the effects of harmful algal blooms. And - but they're also really good carbon sinks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Besides absorbing carbon dioxide, these floating green patches help remove pollution from the water while also providing habitat to animals above and below the surface.

Is it better to have something like this than a seawall, for example?

DAHLENBURG: It is better. I mean, the seawall does provide some habitat, so you'll get your mussels, your crabs. But what we really want is diversity. We really - diversity in any kind of environment is so important, and the wetland does that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Meanwhile, the mission of this aquarium has also been changing. Over a million people visit the National Aquarium each year. Megan Anderson does guest outreach here, which since 2012 includes talking about climate change. We met her near the shark exhibit. She says there is a reason they feel they can make a difference.

MEGAN ANDERSON: Aquariums and zoos speak to more people than all sporting events combined. And then people, generally, that come to aquariums and zoos are coming because they do have kind of a love or a passion for the environment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the facts don't get people to act on climate change, in her experience. It's the emotional appeal and giving people a sense of what they can practically do at home.

ANDERSON: Washing your clothes in cold water, talking to friends and family about climate change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a message that resonates with Sadie Fernandes, who is at the aquarium with her 2-year-old, Josie.

What do you know about climate change? And are you interested in learning about it when you're here?



FERNANDES: I know climate change is real. I know we do need to do better in the environment to make sure everything is sustainable for the next generation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Megan Anderson says she's seeing more people like Sadie and Josie, who are engaged in this issue.

Back with the animals, head vet Dr. Leigh Clayton says people's changing attitudes are giving her hope.

CLAYTON: We as humans - our behavior - our behavior changes will absolutely help and make a difference. And the dialogue can be very, very depressing. But when we don't pollute as much, species come back. Humans get healthier. So it does make a difference.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the next 10 years will be crucial in the fight against climate change, and we all have to do our part.


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