Walruses Again Being Forced Ashore as Arctic Sea Ice Retreats

An animated map (click to see animation) from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows the daily locations of tagged walruses and sea ice distribution in the Chuckchi sea since 9 June 2010.  As the extent of Arctic sea ice again declines to one of the lowest levels on record -- especially off the coast of Alaska (see map below) --  watch the walruses congregate on the remaining ice and increasingly in "haul outs" along the Alaska shoreline.

Sea Ice Extent, 29 Aug 2010.  Source: NSIDC

As the sea ice retreats away from the shore, there is less and less ice available to the walruses -- mostly females and their young -- over relatively shallow waters where they can feed.  Ultimately, if they no longer can find ice over shallow waters, they must swim ashore -- sometimes over great distances. Those that survive the trip "haul out" along the shoreline where conditions tend to much less favorable than they would be on ice over shallow waters.

Walrus haulout near Icy Cape, 16 September 2009.  Source: USGS.

Walrus haulout near Icy Cape, 16 September 2009.  Source: USGS.

Under similar conditions in September 2009, large numbers of walruses hauled out along the Alaskan and Russian shores.  On 14 September 2009, scientists encountered 131 walrus carcasses near Icy Cape, Alaska.  A USGS report (Enumeration of Pacific Walrus Carcasses on Beaches of the Chukchi Sea in Alaska Following a Mortality Event, September 2009) said:

"All appeared to be young animals .... The events that led to the death of these animals are unknown, but appear to be related to the loss of sea ice over the Chukchi Sea continental shelf. In years prior to this event, other investigators have linked walrus deaths at other Chukchi Sea coastal haulouts to trampling, exhaustion from prolonged exposure to open sea conditions, and separation of calves from their mothers."

Carcasses of 131 young walruses litter the shoreline near Icy Cape, Alaska, in mid September 2009.  Source: USGS.

Carcasses of 131 young walruses litter the shoreline near Icy Cape, Alaska, in mid September 2009.  Source: USGS.

The outlook is not promising.  On 12 August, the USGS reported in Arctic sea ice decline: Projected changes in timing and extent of sea ice in the Bering and Chukchi Seas that for the Chukchi Sea, "projections show extensive ice melt during July and ice-free conditions during August, September, and October by the end of the century, with high agreement among models."

Dead calf walrus in front of the village of Wainwright 42 miles north of Icy Cape, Alaska, September 2009.  Source: USGS.

Dead calf walrus in front of the village of Wainwright 42 miles north of Icy Cape, Alaska, September 2009.  Source: USGS.

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For more on walruses, climate change and Arctic sea ice, see the following from our climate change blog:

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