By Emily Gertz, Sea Ice Melt Forces Tens of Thousands of Walruses Ashore on Alaska Coast, From On Earth Blog

This is happening to polar bears (and they will not survive this) as well as the walrus.

Tens of thousands of walruses have been sighted on the coast of the Bering Sea in far northern Alaska, likely driven ashore by this summer’s near-record low amount of sea ice, a result of climate change in the sensitive Arctic environment.

Researchers estimate that 10,000 to 20,000 Pacific walrus females and calves have come ashore near Point Lay, on Alaska’s North Slope. “Pacific walrus” is the moniker for walruses that inhabit the Bering and Chukchi seas.

“This is very unusual in the larger context of walrus behavior,” says Tony Fischbach, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Alaska. “Traditionally, they follow the ice north into the Chukchi Sea and forage the shallows between Alaska and Russia.”

Prior to 2007, Fischbach says, walruses came ashore in small numbers ranging from tens to hundreds. But for the last four years, there has been almost no ice in these waters, and walruses have been hauling out by the thousands — or the tens of thousands, he says.

Near Point Lay, “we’re noticing that we’re not seeing the calves we expected to see, one calf for every three to four females,” Fischbach says. Although his team is not completely sure of the reason, he says “it’s possibly higher calf mortality, all due to changing habitat.”

Walrus mothers, called cows, have typically left their calves on the ice while foraging for clams and other invertebrates in seabottom sediments. Disappearing ice means longer distances to swim between rests and nursing the calves, conditions that can weaken the cows and may be killing their offspring.

How much walrus has come onshore near Point Lay? “We’re talking in the neighborhood of 40 million collective pounds of massive marine mammal,” writes reporter Jill Burke of the Anchorage Alaska Dispatch, which describes residents and researchers alike as “awestruck” by the sight. Burke notes that Point Lay Mayor Leo Ferreira thinks shipping traffic has driven the animals ashore, rather than the effects of climate change on their preferred sea ice habitat. But the USGS disagrees.

“Extensive and rapid losses of sea ice in the Arctic have raised conservation concerns for the Pacific walrus,” reads a newly-released USGS report. The agency projects “a clear trend of worsening conditions for the subspecies.” The situation is more than academic, as the agency federal government is supposed to decide by early 2011 whether or not the Pacific walrus needs Endangered Species Act protection.


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