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How climate change is impacting the Kemp's ridley sea turtle's fight for survival

The changing climate threatens to lead to increasing sand temperatures on beaches, throwing their delicate breeding balance out of whack.

GALVESTON, Texas — One of the world’s most incredible creatures is fighting for its survival, and experts have growing concerns climate change is playing a part.

At Galveston Island State Park, sea turtles make this their home, but it’s not an easy one to live in. From Louisiana to Surfside, sea turtle patrols monitor this 87-mile coastline to make sure they survive.

From April 1 through July 15, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles swim up from the surf sights set on the sand dunes. But it’s a job easier said than done.

“These are small dunes here and so they’ll go up to the vegetation here,” Dr. Christopher Marshall, director of the Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research, said.

RELATED: Endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle eggs found in Galveston

From predators flying high to the exhausting trek to the sand temperature itself.

“Sea turtle biology is interesting in that the nest temperature determines the sex of the animal,” he said.

If the temperature is below 81.86 degrees Fahrenheit, the eggs will be male. If it’s above 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit, they’ll be female. Anything in between is a toss-up.

But our changing climate threatens to lead to increasing sand temperatures on our beaches, throwing the delicate breeding balance out of whack.

Dr. Marshall has been studying the sand along the Gulf Coast.

“So far it looks like our nest temperatures are pretty stable and not too high but that’s all preliminary right now,” he said.

But, while things seem fine now, when KHOU 11 News visited, his team wasn’t taking any chances. After all, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is the most critically endangered in the world.

“And so every nest and every egg really counts,” he said.

His team of 300 volunteers monitor the beach six days a week, scooping up eggs and taking them to an incubation facility, giving them a fighting chance.

“The hatching success could be anywhere from 0-15 percent but when we protect the nest in an incubation facility we could get up to 95 percent,” he said.

An important percentage because along this 87-mile coastline sea turtles will lay around 1,500 eggs a season. But according to NOAA only one or two of them will make it to adulthood.

NASA said, “Our warming climate could be what’s driving sea turtles into extinction.”

But sea turtles have been around for more than 100 million years.

“Why is it that this specific time period and this specific change that’s causing concern you know when they have been around for millions and millions of years and found a way to adapt,” Meteorologist Kim Castro asked.

“I think it’s a question of as you said, it depends on the duration and how long they actually have to actually adapt,” Dr. Michelle Gierach, NASA scientist, said. “We’re experiencing these changes on a very short time scale.”

Dr. Gierach said there’s enough data to understand change is happening but not enough to understand the impact it’s having on the sea turtles.

“We don’t have the data, the underlying data to really sort of state whether or not these predictions and assessments are reality,” she said. “We know they’re being impacted but at what level.”

How do we get a more definitive understanding? NASA said it’ll come from exploring our ocean more.

NOAA said 80 percent of the ocean is “unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored.”

NASA hopes to change that soon.

“There’s some new satellites coming online that can start filling in some of those puzzle pieces,” she said.

Those satellites are scheduled to be operational by 2032. Until then, the work continues.

The next step is partnering with 12 other sea turtle conservation groups in Florida, Mexico, Cuba, all of the Gulf communities in order to have a long-term, Gulf-wide monitoring project, which hopes to kick off this summer.

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