Scientists conducting aerial surveys recently spotted an estimated 35,000 Pacific walruses gathered tightly on a remote beach in Northwest Alaska.
While it was an impressive sight, the mass gathering is troubling because walruses typically haul out more sporadically on floating ice in the Chukchi Sea, their feeding grounds above the Arctic Circle.
The mammals require sea ice on which to rest. But this summer there is virtually no ice, and the extraordinary scene on the beach near Point Lay, an Inupiat Eskimo village, helps to illustrate the possible effects of climate change in the region.
The aggregation, photographed Saturday, is one of the largest in recent years. But there have been others during the past decade: first in 2007, then in 2009. In 2011, a gathering about the same size as the recent gathering appeared on the same half-mile stretch of beach near Point Lay.
Point Lay is located 300 miles southwest of Barrow and 700 miles northwest of Anchorage.
Pacific walruses spend winters in the Bering Sea. Females give birth on sea ice and use ice as platforms from which to dive for snails, clams, and worms. Their long tusks help them haul out onto the ice.
Each summer, as sea ice recedes north, females and their young follow the remaining ice into the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait.
The massive haul-outs are troubling not just because of a climate change standpoint. They are dangerous for the animals. Younger, weaker walruses can be trampled or suffocated.
Andrea Medeiros, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, told the Associated Press that a survey team counted about 50 carcasses last week. The animals might have been killed during a stampede.
A necropsy team is scheduled to collect the carcasses next week, to try to determine a precise cause of death.
Also, because the walruses have traveled so far from their feeding grounds, they might lack the strength and nourishment needed to return to feeding areas.
Environmental groups, naturally, are very concerned.
“The massive concentration of walruses onshore—when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters—is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic,” Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program, said in a statement.
Williams added that mass walrus haul-outs also have been documented on the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea.
She continued: “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.”
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