Melting Ice Drives Thousands of Walruses To Shore
A dramatic scenario of how global warming is wreaking havoc on animals is being played out in the northwest coast of Alaska. Thousands of Pacific walrus herds are being forced to haul themselves onto beaches in the area because of a change in melting sea ice.
The Associated Press said a contractor taking part in a federal marine aerial survey over the Chukchi Sea on Wednesday spotted 5,000 walruses on a beach north of Point Lay and a second herd of 3,000 walruses was seen nearby.
The typical pattern is for walrus mothers to leave the Bering Sea with their offspring in the summer. They ride on the sea ice as it melts from the Bering Strait and carries them to the Chukchi Sea.
Once they arrive at the Chukchi Sea, the walruses are able to live on the ice and dive into the shallow water below to find clams, snails and other food. They use the ice as “platforms to give birth, nurse their young and elude predators,” reported Reuters.
Over the past four or five years, the sea ice has continued to melt and carry the animals to a part of the ocean that is too deep for them to fish, so the walruses have begun to swim to nearby beaches or risk starving to death on the ice.
The first time this phenomenon occurred was in 2007 with a few thousand walruses swimming to shore. In a story from Care2′s Judy Molland 10, 000 to 20,000 walruses hauled themselves to beaches in 2010.
Scientists expect more than 20,000 walruses to gather on the beaches this year.
The new pattern may sound like a genius solution for the walruses to survive, but they face new dangers when they gather on the shore. In September 2009 more than 130 young walruses were crushed at Alaska’s Icy Cape after a disturbance caused a stampede.
“Walrus are sensitive to human activity and to machine activity,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods said in an AP interview. The agency has already issued alerts to pilots and coastal communities asking that airplanes stay at least 1,500 feet above herds and a half-mile away if it’s safe. Likewise, hunters in boats have been asked to stay a half-mile away to avoid spooking walrus herds.”
Next week U.S. Geological Survey scientists plan to tag 35 walruses in Point Lay with satellite radio tags that will monitor their activity on shore.
However things may get worse for the animals in 2012 because Shell Oil hopes to drill in the Chukchi Sea next summer. In 2008 the company bought 2.76 million acres in leases to drill at the bottom of the sea.
Other scientists have speculated that the walrus crisis may have solved itself. They think that because there is less sea ice, fewer walruses may have made the journey to Alaska. Chad Jay of the U.S. Geological Survey said, “There is a lot less ice than there used to be on the continental shelf this year. So we might be headed into a new normal.”
In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Pacific walruses as “candidates” for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but they have not been officially added to the category.
Photo from usfwshq via flickr.