Perhaps the greatest threat to the leatherback turtle is global climate change. This is expected to affect this species through habitat loss, physiological changes and loss of prey (13).
Average global temperatures are predicted to increase by at least 2 degrees Celsius in the next 40 years due to climate change. An increase in the temperature of the sand used for nesting could have serious consequences for the leatherback turtle, as gender of the hatchlings is determined by incubation temperature. The outcome of this is likely to be an increase in the number of females relative to males in populations. This could threaten the stability of leatherback turtle populations in the future. In addition, increases in temperature have also been shown to lead to hatchling abnormalities and other developmental problems in young leatherback turtles (13).
Ocean levels are thought to have risen at an average rate of 1.8 millimetres per year since 1961. Ocean levels are predicted to rise even more rapidly in the future, while increases in storm frequency and severity are also expected. This is likely to lead to increased beach erosion and degradation, which could wash away leatherback turtle nests and decrease nesting habitat (13).
Changes in ocean currents are also expected due to climate change. This may affect juvenile leatherbacks in their migrations following hatching, as well as adults’ navigation. In addition, changes to ocean currents are likely to affect the abundance and distribution of jellyfish and other leatherback turtle prey species (13).
The leatherback turtle’s ability to adapt to climate change is severely compromised by the rate of the change. Such rapid changes, in combination with the leatherback turtle’s long and slow maturing life history, may limit the species’ capacity to adapt quickly enough to prevent severe population impacts (13).
Numerous other threats are also compromising the leatherback turtle’s ability to adapt to climate change. Several populations of leatherback turtles in the Pacific have plummeted in recent years, principally due to accidental capture in fisheries and the over-harvest of eggs (14). Other threats to the leatherback turtle worldwide include habitat loss, boat strikes, and ingestion of discarded plastics, which the turtles mistake for jellyfish (14).