It's cold! How cold is it, you ask? Well, it's so cold that sharks are freezing to death in the waters of Cape Cod and washing up onto the shores. According to a series of Facebook posts from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, no fewer than three thresher sharks have gone into "cold shock" as a result of the cape's frigid water temperatures since Wednesday. One of the sharks was so frozen that researchers had to let it thaw before performing an autopsy.
"Working with Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and NOAA Fisheries Service, the AWSC team was called out to two thresher shark strandings along the Cape today," the conservancy wrote on Wednesday. "Both of these male sharks were nearly the same size and likely stranded due to cold shock. Morphometric data, organs, and tissue samples were collected to be examined (once they thaw)."
Two days later, the conservancy wrote that a third thresher shark was found stranded on the shores after going into cold shock. It was sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to thaw.
Cold shock is distinct from hypothermia. Hypothermia refers specifically to a decrease in body temperature; the term "cold shock," by contrast, encompasses all of the physiological responses an organism has to extremely cold water, including increased blood pressure, cardiac arrest, involuntary gasping and unconsciousness.
As its name implies, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy is an organization devoted to protecting Atlantic white sharks. In addition to supporting education and public outreach about sharks, the conservancy researches white shark populations on the east coast, often in conjunction with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, in order to learn more about how best to protect them.
"Despite the enormous scientific and public interest in white sharks, large gaps in our understanding of this species remain," the conservancy writes on its website. "Cape Cod has become an aggregation site for great white sharks, presenting a rare and incredible research opportunity."
In some instances, the conservancy discovers sharks that, while stranded, are still alive, in which case the organization's workers will attempt to move the sharks back into the water safely. But in many cases, the stranded sharks are already "deceased, decaying, or frozen," according to one of the organization's fundraising pages. In those instances, researchers will procure the shark's bodies and conduct autopsies in order to better understand exactly why the sharks became stranded in the first place.
In Cape Cod, temperatures fell to an astonishing 6 degrees the week that the sharks were discovered.
“If you’ve got cold air, that’ll freeze their gills up very quickly,” Greg Skomal, a marine scientist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, told the New York Times. “Those gill filaments are very sensitive and it wouldn’t take long for the shark to die.”
Skomal theorized that the sharks were most likely attempting to move south in search of warmer waters, but became trapped by Cape Cod and ultimately stranded on the beach.
Even outside of the cape, 2017 has been an extremely cold winter. Temperatures reached 32 degrees below zero in Watertown, New York in late December and four degrees colder than that in International Falls, Minnesota, according to the Times. In Pittsfield Charter Township, Michigan, firefighters attempting to extinguish a warehouse fire found that the negative 15-degree air caused the water from their hoses to ice over their gloves and freeze nearby fire hydrants.
On Twitter, President Trump used the cold temperatures to suggest that climate change isn't real, tweeting that "we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against." Climate change refers to a wide variety of phenomenon, however, not all of which result in temperatures becoming higher.