Extreme Arctic sea ice melt forces thousands of walruses ashore in Alaska

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The extreme loss of Arctic sea ice due to is forcing thousands of walruses to crowd ashore on a remote barrier island off , and threatening their survival.

Barack Obama will be the first US president to visit the Alaskan Arctic on 31 August on a three-day tour to draw attention to the drastic consequences of climate change for the Arctic, such as warming winters and the rapid retreat of sea ice.

The first reported sighting of animals forced to come ashore in the Chukchi Sea was by a photographer on 23 August, and confirmed by villagers in the remote hamlet of Point Lay late on Thursday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Adult female walruses on an ice flow with young walruses in the Eastern Chukchi Sea, Alaska. (AP Photo/U.S. Geological Survey, S.A. Sonsthagen)

Such landings, forced by the absence of sea ice on which to rest and feed, put the animals at risk of stampede in the limited space of the barrier island.

The animals are easily spooked by aircraft or onlookers, government scientists warned. Trampling deaths are one of the biggest natural risks.

Sea ice cover in the winter months fell to a new low this year because of climate change and abnormal weather patterns.

Aerial photograph of thousands of Pacific coming ashore near Point Lay, on the north-west Arctic coast of Alaska, on Sunday. Photograph: Gary Braasch/Corbis

Some scientists believe the Arctic could be entirely ice-free in the summer months by the 2030s – with profound effects for local indigenous communities that rely on the ice, as well as wildlife that depend on extreme conditions.

Since 2000, the forced migration of walruses and their young to barrier islands such as Point Lay – known as a “haul out” – has become an increasingly regular occurrence, according to US government scientists.

An estimated 35,000 walruses are pictured are pictured hauled out on a beach near the village of Point Lay, Alaska, 700 miles north-west of Anchorage, in this September 2014. Photograph: Reuters

“Many walruses seem to prefer the barrier islands just north of the native village of Point Lay to haul out,” Jim MacCracken, a supervisory wildlife biologist with the fish and wildlife service, said.

Last year, as many as 40,000 animals, mainly females and their young, were forced ashore. It was the biggest known haul-out of its kind in the US Arctic, according to government scientists. The Federal Aviation Authority re-routed flights and bush pilots were told to keep their distance to avoid a stampede.

Agency scientists said about 60 young walruses were killed because of crowding and stampedes.

“Walruses often flee haulouts in response to the sight, sound, or odor of humans or machines. Walruses are particularly sensitive to changes in engine noise and are more likely to stampede off beaches when planes turn or fly low overhead,” Andrea Medeiros, a spokeswoman for the fish and wildlife service, said in an email.

The villagers have been dreading the prospect of a repeat record haul-out – and earlier this month appealed to outsiders to keep away from the area.

“We do not believe that these sorts of visits are in the best interest of the walruses and they do not align with the haul out protection role we have developed and measures we set in place to prevent disturbances,” Leo Ferreira III, the Point Lay tribal president said in a statement distributed by US government agencies.

Gary Braasch, an environmental photographer, said he first spotted the walruses coming ashore on the southern end of the barrier island, about two miles from the hamlet of Point Lay, on the evening of 23 August.

Some 35,000 walrus gather on shore near Point Lay, Alaska, in September 2014. Photograph: Corey Accardo/AP

Braasch has spent about a decade photographing evidence of climate change in Alaska, and had been tracking the movement of tagged walruses through the US Geological Survey mapping projects.

“What they looked like by eye was three brown smudges along the beach. They were not visible as individual animals,” he said. But he said the blown-up images revealed large numbers of animals. “Certainly they were in the low thousands at that point.”

Fish and Wildlife Service officials accused Braasch of violating flight safeguards and putting the animals at risk – a charge he rejected. “Several of our biologists looked at the images and noted that it appeared that many animals were on shore and appeared to be agitated and fleeing the area,” Medeiros said. “Harassing walrus is against the law. Operating an aircraft in a manner which results in harassing or disturbing walruses is prohibited by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

Braasch said the pilot did not overfly the barrier island, and intentionally flew several hundred feet beyond the Fish and Wildlife flight guidelines to avoid the risk of stampede. He said he took his photograph from more than a mile away. “We were not even close to the limits they set.”

He confirmed the government agency had been in contact about flight concerns.

This article was first published by The Guardian on 27 Aug 2015.


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Iain Gibson

The caption on the first picture, claiming to show 35,000 walruses, is also inaccurate. I've enlarged the picture and counted approximately 1,700 walruses in it, only about 5% of the number claimed!

Chris Hallamore

This article is inaccurate. It fails to mention that this massing of walruses has been taking place decades before so called man-made "Global Warming". Google it for yourself, here is one article http://www.bishop-hill.net/blog/2014/10/3/walrus-inconsistencies.html: Man-made "Global Warming" theorists will jump on any event to backup their argument. Now it’s quite possible there is indeed "Global Warming" created by events out of Homeo Sapiens control, then this headline grabbing article wouldn’t be interesting or could be as to the real reason why the walruses have chosen or forced to mass on this beach I have been following wildlife all my life and… Read more »

Darren Jessup

I'm totally against any animal cruelty and everything that is going on on this planet causing our climate change but I can see that the only time man is going to listen is when it is too late

Maria Manuela Lopes

No words

Michele Jankelow

What are we doing to this exquisite planet???

Diane Pizza

Our world is in such trouble and because of humans- and we just seem to continue on with no real changes….