Huge Walrus Haul-Out Signals Latest ‘Canary in the Coalmine’ for Climate Change in the Arctic
by Carolyn Sotka
Photo: Corey Accardo/AP
Near Port Lay Alaska, over 35,000 Pacific walruses have hauled out onto dry land because they are unable to find sea ice due to global warming. This haul out is the largest ever recorded by scientists working with the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM), a Federal, multi-agency program.
The large land-based haul-outs were first observed in 2007 and numbers have continued to rise since on both the U.S. and Russian sides of the Chukchi Sea.
Walruses live mostly in shallow waters above the continental shelf and need to sea ice to rest during migration and to forage. This summer, the sea ice’s annual low point was the sixth smallest since satellite monitoring began in 1979.
“Those animals have essentially run out of offshore sea ice, and have no other choice but to come ashore,” said Chadwick Jay, a research ecologist in Alaska with the US Geological Survey.
Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program told the Associated Press, “The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic, 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.”
Global greenhouse gas emissions are the main contributor to climate change and the associated loss of sea ice. The change in environmental conditions in the Arctic could lead to drastic changes in walrus and other Arctic animals’ behavior, distribution and migration patterns.
The crowding at Port Lay is so severe, that the U.S. has taken action by re-routing flights to help avoid a deadly stampede on the thin strip of land.