As sea ice recedes amid warming oceans, Pacific walruses crowd onto beaches to rest and forage for food.
By Sarah Lazare / Common Dreams
Federal biologists have discovered an unusual phenomenon on a beach in northwest Alaska: a massive gathering of walruses—35,000 of them—crowded onto a small strip of shore.
This swarm, which was sighted in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aerial survey on Saturday, is a direct result of a warming climate and declining sea ice, say scientists.
Pacific walruses, who live in the Bering Sea during winter, require floating sea ice to meet their survival needs, using them for rest in between journeys to forage for food, such as clam, snails, and worms, as well as for giving birth and caring for their young. But as the oceans warm, this sea ice is receding, especially near coastal areas, forcing these walruses to take to the beach for resting and foraging, according to an explanation from the NOAA.
“The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic, and that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice and also to take action to address the root causes of climate change,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of the group’s Arctic program, in a statement.
The burly mammals were found just north of Point Lay, an Inupiat Eskimo village.According to Andrea Medeiros, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the walruses were first sighted in mid-September, and dozens of carcasses have been identified, likely due to stampede.
Chadwick Jay, research ecologist and leader of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific walrus research program, said that similar large aggregations of walruses have been seen in and near the area in recent years. The WWF tracked 20,000 walruses on the shore at Ryrkaipiy on the Chukchi Sea in Russia in 2009:
Two years ago, Nick Sundt of WWF warned, “As in past years, it now appears likely that we again will see large numbers of walruses forced onto Alaska’s beaches. These iconic images will starkly illustrate the massive disruption that is occurring in the Arctic as the region rapidly warms.”
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Steve Goddard says
This happens almost every year, as the Walrus migrate out of the Arctic.
There is more sea ice around Alaska now than there was in 1998, and about the same amount as in 1990.
Bob b says
What does the haul out tell us about “global warming?” Nothing. Leaving out that we are in an 18 year “pause” in global warming, haul outs of this size are not new. A similar and contemporaneously documented haul out occurred in 1978, probably due to the then fadish “global cooling.” Discussion of the 1978 haul out, also involving 35,000 walruses, including females, is found at Polarbearscience.com. http://polarbearscience.com/2014/10/01/mass-haulouts-of-pacific-walrus-and-stampede-deaths-are-not-new-not-due-to-low-ice-cover/
R James says
I researched this. It seems it’s nothing unusual, and in fact, it’s part of the polar bear food cycle. Arctic ice has been low in the past (eg discovery of Northwest Passage), ane the walrus were fine. There’s still 5,000,000 sq km of ice in the Arctic – that supports a lot of walrus.
Susan Crockford says
I am a zoologist with a specialty in Arctic marine mammals.
Pacific walrus population numbers are high right now because they are well protected from the over-hunting that decimated the herds in the early 1900s.
But walrus are naturally “food limited” – their numbers can get so high that they run out of food. When that happens, the population declines back to a sustainable level. That’s nature working as it should, not a catastrophe.
This happened, according to walrus experts of the day, back in the 1970s. And in 1978 and 1972, there were incidents just like these recent ones, of females and calves hauling out in herd of tens of thousands (36,000-60,000).
Both incidents also had high numbers of deaths (mostly calves) due to stampedes of the herd.
Sea ice levels at that time were higher in late summer and fall than today.
However, in the 1978 incidents, the herd of females and calves LEFT the area where the ice was and went to an area without ice (St. Lawrence Island) and hauled out there.
In the 1972 incident, on Wrangel Island off the Russian coast, there was ice nearby – but still the herd of females & calves hauled out in huge numbers.
These incidents are documented in the scientific literature.
Lack of ice is not the common denominator for these events – high population numbers is the shared factor.
See details and references here:
High walrus numbers may explain why females and calves are hauling out in droves wp.me/p2CaNn-1zb
Anna Daniels says
Readers should know a little bit more about expert Susan Crockford: But Crockford may not be the most reliable source — she has been working to attack the scientific consensus for years, once signing onto a document “rebuk[ing]” President Obama for accepting manmade global warming. A 2012 document from the climate “skeptic” Heartland Institute, which has received funding from oil interests, showed that Crockford was paid by the institute for the explicit purpose of combatting the United Nations’ consensus reports on the state of climate science.”
This quote is from MediaMatters.
Susan Crockford says
Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. There are links to these papers in my blog post – wp.me/p2CaNn-1zb – or you can look them up yourself.
That is exactly what Anna Daniels and MediaMatters don’t want you to do:
Fay, F.H. and Kelly, B.P. 1980. Mass natural mortality of walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) at St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea, autumn 1978. Arctic 33:226-245.
Fay, F.H., Kelly, B.P. and Sease, J.L. 1989. Managing the exploitation of Pacific walruses: a tradegy of delayed response and poor communication. Marine Mammal Science 5:1-16.
[I think the moderator didn’t like me providing the direct links to these, so I’m posting again without them. Apologies if this comes up as a double post]
R James says
As I said in my earlier post, I’ve checked this out , and found what Susan has said to be consistent with my findings.