In the past couple of weeks, more than 10,000 walruses have gathered on the northwest coast of Alaska. It may look like the walrus social event of the year, but itís actually a distressing display of how climate change is affecting arctic wildlife.
Normally, walruses prefer to lounge on icebergs and do not assemble in such large packs. They use floating sheets of ice as a resting pad in between diving to the ocean floor for food like clams, snails and worms. Additionally, the female walruses birth their offspring on this ice.
However, global warming has all but eliminated the floating ice, particularly in the shallower regions where walruses can access food. The disappearing ice has left the walruses to find a new habitat on which to relax. With no other option, theyíre winding up on shore.
Until recently, it was practically unheard of for walruses to lounge on the beach, particularly in such large numbers. Over the past several years, however, increasing numbers of walruses are turning to the shore as their only resort. Two years ago, about 30,000 walruses amassed on this small area of beach just over half a mile long.
Though the shore may seem like a suitable replacement for the walruses to spend their time, itís potentially quite dangerous for them. Since they are effectively crammed into such a tiny space like sardines, there is a risk of a stampede. In the event of a stampede, adolescent walruses are especially liable to be crushed by their 3,000+ pound adult counterparts.
In fact, four years ago, a stampede that arose on a similarly crowded beach left more than 130 walruses dead. This year, however, wildlife experts are doing their best to prevent a stampede. They are taking steps to prevent people, airplanes and polar bears from coming too close to the walrusesí temporary hangout in the hope that the walruses wonít become frightened.
Still, a stampede might be a secondary concern to the real problem facing the walruses: climate change. The damage that melted ice is doing to the walrus lifestyle may be irreversible.
Moreover, opportunistic oil companies view the Arctic as a place prime for drilling, especially now that the melting ice has helped to free up access to previously untapped areas. Given the extensive history of Arctic oil disasters, there’s a good chance that oil companies will not only play a hand in damaging the walruses’ natural habitat, but their substitute habitat, as well.