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Tens of Thousands of Stranded Walruses Are Once Again Gathering in Alaska

Melting sea ice appears to be causing the animals to flee the ocean, which scientists say highlights the rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic.
August 28, 2015, 10:30pm
Photo via NOAA/EPA

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With the sea ice where they rest and hunt melted away, thousands of walruses have once again flooded the shoreline near the village of Point Lay, Alaska.

The massings, which are called "haul outs," were recorded for the first time in 2007 and have occurred seven of the last nine years. Scientists and environmentalists say they are one of the most visible impacts of the rapidly changing climate of the Arctic, which is heating up twice as fast of the rest of the world. More than 35,000 walruses gathered there last year, but stormy seas have kept scientists from making an estimate so far this year.

"This is a new phenomenon," said US Geological Survey (USGS) wildlife biologist Anthony Fischbach. "Large coastal haul outs forming have only been seen during years of complete sea ice melt in the Chukchi Sea."

'The ocean is our garden, it's the biggest source of food for us Natives.'

The extent of summer sea ice hit a record low in 2012, as it has four times in the past 12 years. Totals aren't yet in for 2015, but it's likely to rank as one of the top five. Last March, winter sea ice in the Arctic hit a record low, too.

The ice-free period in the Chukchi Sea, which lies off the northwest coast of Alaska, is currently about a month long, but the USGS warns that could expand to 4 or 5 months by the end of the century if humans keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Some scientists project an ice-free summer in the Arctic as soon as 2030.

"We've seen rising temperatures, both sea surface temperatures and air temperatures, and of course sea ice has been going out at a faster rate, sooner, each year, and freeze is coming later each year," said James MacCracken, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "When the ice completely melts out, the walruses eventually have to come to shore and haul out. It's all connected."

When the ice is all gone, females and young walruses break for the shore, which can be perilous for the animals. Slight disturbances, like aircraft or ship traffic, can cause a stampede, putting the smallest of the bunch at particular risk. Last year, according to the USGS, 60 walruses died due to overcrowding, many of them calves.

"With this year's low summer sea ice extent, it's not surprising to see walruses beginning to haul out on shore looking for a place to rest," said Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund's US Arctic programs. "The sharp decline of Arctic sea ice over the last decade is leading to major changes for wildlife and communities alike."

Related: Obama Is Heading to Alaska to Highlight Climate Change — Despite Arctic Drilling Approval

Provoking the animals means disturbing local residents, too. Leo Ferreira III is the Tribal Council President of Point Lay, which has a population of about 250 people.

"The ocean is our garden, it's the biggest source of food for us Natives," Ferreira said. "[Walruses] are a staple food, so it's a real concern to this community and to other communities in our area."

Ferreira couldn't remember a single walrus taken by a community member this year, he said, and confirmed that hunting has grown more difficult in recent years. The masses packed onto the shore provide no respite, either: for fear of causing a stampede, he's requested the community not hunt the walruses after they've hauled out.

President Obama will visit Alaska next week with the goal of highlighting the impact of climate change, yet his trip comes on the heels of his decision to allow expanded oil and gas drilling in the region. According to Williams, the mad walrus dash to shore should make our path forward clear.

"These walrus haul outs are a striking example of climate change's immediate impacts on wildlife," Williams said. "Such extreme events are a stark reminder of the urgent need to ratchet down the emissions that are warming our planet."

Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom