Walrus mass in vast numbers on Alaska beach as sea ice retreats
Concern that warming climate is responsible for gathering of about 35,000 walrus in north-west Alaska
Associated Press in Anchorage
theguardian.com, Wednesday 1 October 2014 01.26 BST
Pacific walrus that can’t find sea ice for resting in Arctic waters are coming ashore in record numbers on a beach in north-west Alaska.
An estimated 35,000 walrus were photographed on Saturday about five miles north of Point Lay, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Point Lay is an Inupiat village 700 miles (1,126 kilometres) north-west of Anchorage.
The enormous gathering was spotted during NOAA’s annual arctic marine mammal aerial survey, spokeswoman Julie Speegle said by email.
The gathering of walrus on shore is a phenomenon that has accompanied the loss of summer sea ice as the climate has warmed.
Pacific walrus spend winters in the Bering Sea. Females give birth on sea ice and use ice as a diving platform to reach snails, clams and worms on the shallow continental shelf.
Unlike seals, walrus cannot swim indefinitely and must rest. They use their tusks to “haul out”, or pull themselves onto ice or rocks.
As temperatures warm in summer, the edge of the sea ice recedes north. Females and their young ride the edge of the sea ice into the Chukchi Sea, the body of water north of the Bering Strait.
In recent years, sea ice has receded north beyond shallow continental shelf waters and into Arctic Ocean water, where depths exceed two miles and walrus cannot dive to the bottom.
The World Wildlife Fund said walrus had also been gathering in large groups on the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea.
“It’s another remarkable sign of the dramatic environmental conditions changing as the result of sea ice loss,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of the group’s Arctic program.
“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.”
This summer, the sea ice’s annual low point was the sixth smallest since satellite monitoring began in 1979.
Walrus in large numbers were first spotted on the US side of the Chukchi Sea in 2007. They returned in 2009, and in 2011 scientists estimated 30,000 walruses appeared along a half-mile stretch of beach near Point Lay.
Young animals are vulnerable to stampedes when a large group gathers on a beach. Stampedes can be triggered by a polar bear, human hunter or low-flying airplane.
The carcasses of more than 130 mostly young walrus were counted after a stampede in September 2009 at Alaska’s Icy Cape.
A spokeswoman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Andrea Medeiros, said this year the walrus were first spotted on 13 September and had been moving on and off shore.
Observers last week saw about 50 carcasses on the beach from animals that may have been killed in a stampede, and the agency was assembling a necropsy team to determine their cause of death.
“They’re going to get them out there next week,” she said.