In days of yore, the life of a Pacific walrus was idyllic. Blubbery and social, these 1 1/2 ton beasts laid on sea ice, holding court. Their favorite food, shellfish, was just a short trip down to the ocean floor. Sure, it’s cold down there, but these tusked giants can slow their heartbeats to withstand polar temperatures. If there was a squabble, it was likely about love or love lost.
This harmony has now been threatened by climate change. Due to global warming, the sea ice favored by walruses has disappeared — and now, in northwest Alaska, more than 35,000 walrus have come ashore seeking refuge.
“The walruses are hauling out on land in a spectacle that has become all too common in six of the last eight years as a consequence of climate-induced warming,” said a release from the U.S. Geological Survey. “Summer sea ice is retreating far north of the shallow continental shelf waters of the Chukchi Sea in U.S. and Russian waters, a condition that did not occur a decade ago. To keep up with their normal resting periods between feeding bouts to the seafloor, walruses have simply hauled out onto shore.”
“Those animals have essentially run out of offshore sea ice, and have no other choice but to come ashore,” Chadwick Jay, a research ecologist in Alaska with the U.S. Geological Survey, told the Guardian.
Though they are able to “haul out” onshore using their tusks, which can grow to three feet, dry land is not a walrus’s preferred environment. For a rest from interminable swimming, walruses turn to sea ice for a break. In fact, they migrate north during summers as sea ice melts, and travel south again as the ice returns.
That strategy worked until about 2007. That year, for the first time, sea ice failed to form, leading to increasingly large conventions of walrus on Alaskan shores. Before, fewer than 100 animals would appear together. These numbers quickly came to be measured in the thousands.
“It is really a reduction in the sea ice that is causing the change in behavior, and the reduction of sea ice is due to global warming,” Jay said.
But what looks like a cuddly gathering about 700 miles of Anchorage in Point Lay — walruses aping, say, “March of the Penguins” — is anything but. Gathered in large numbers on shore, animals can quickly transmit disease. Food can become scarce. Stampedes can kill animals, especially calves. There are also brown bears and polar bears about.
Metaphors chosen by scientists are unflattering.
“It becomes like a giant pig pile,” said Margaret Williams, managing director for the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program, told the Guardian. She added: “You have all these animals that are normally distributed on a flat surface. When they lose their sea ice habitat and come ashore in places that are accessible – like flat, sandy beaches – they gather in large numbers. … When they are disturbed it can cause stampedes in large numbers.”
Scientists have already begun to count the bodies. The Associated Press reported researchers had counted about 50 walruses that may have been killed in a stampede. In 2009, they counted about 150.
“Occupying these areas and foraging these areas concentrates tens of thousands of walruses in a smaller area that is already known to be less rich than their off-shore foraging ground, and there is a concern that they could deplete the resources,” U.S. Geological Survey biologist Tony Fischbach told Think Progress. “We don’t have a good measure of that — these are simply hypotheses or concerns we have.”
Short of immediately reversing global warming, scientists in the Arctic can only do damage control. The Pacific walrus may end up on the endangered species list, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed. And, as walruses are skittish, the Federal Aviation Administration has asked that flights stay out of the area to prevent a stampede.
The World Wildlife Fund said that the plight of the walrus is just another part of climate change’s unfolding tragedy. The WWF estimated that sea ice has shrunk as much as 4 percent each decade between 1979 and 2012, as Time reported.
“The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic,” Williams told the Associated Press, “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.”