Environmentalists have been trying to link reports about the beaching of a 35,000-strong walrus herd to global warming, which they say is melting the polar ice caps.
“The massive concentration of walruses onshore—when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters—is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic,” Margaret Williams, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program, said.
But is global warming really driving walrus herds to Alaska’s shoreline? Zoologist Susan Crockford says there are many recorded mass walrus beachings in history going back at least 45 years — when Arctic sea ice extent was much greater than it is now.
“At least two documented incidents like this have occurred in the recent past: one in 1978, on St. Lawrence Island and the associated Punuk Islands and the other in 1972, on Wrangell Island,” Crockford wrote on her blog Polarbearscience.com. “These events included mass mortality associated with very large herds.”
Crockford cites a 1980 study by University of Alaska scientists which found that a “conservative estimate of the area covered by the animals is at least 2 km… which suggests the possibility that about 35 000… walruses had hauled out there” in autumn of 1978. The study added that “Eskimos believe that it was used in this case as an alternative to the Punuk Islands, which may have been fully occupied at the time.”
“If all of the areas had been occupied at one time, it is conceivable that some 50,000 to 60,000 walruses were on shore on the Punuk Islands sometime during the late autumn of 1978,” the study continued, adding that “between 1930 and 1932 an unusually large number of walruses hauled out in autumn on the Punuk Islands… sufficient to cover the southwestern peninsula of the North Island and most of the Middle Island as well.”
The Alaska Dispatch News reports that the beaching of 35,000 walruses in Northwest Alaska “is one of the biggest onshore gatherings of the animals documented.” Walruses use the sea ice to rest on in between dives for fish.
Ecologist Chadwick Jay who heads up the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific walrus research program told ADN melting ice has forced these walruses to come ashore to rest between hunts. Jay told ADN that in “only two of the last eight years has the Chukchi had enough floating ice to provide resting spots that allowed walruses to avoid having to swim to shore.”
Beachings can be dangerous for a herd as smaller females and pups might get crushed underneath the press of bigger walruses and because beachings generally occur far from prime feeding grounds. ADN reports that there have no signs of major problems yet, but 36 walruses were reported dead.
“The sharp decline of Arctic sea ice over the last decade means major changes for wildlife and communities alike,” said WWF’s Williams. “Today’s news about the sea ice minimum is yet another reminder of the urgent need to ratchet down global greenhouse gas emissions—the main human factor driving massive climate change.”
Arctic sea ice extent is near its yearly low, now hitting 1.91 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center — the sixth lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979.
But regardless of high or low sea ice levels, walruses have always seemed to beach themselves, according to Crockford.
“As you can see, this is blatant nonsense and those who support or encourage this interpretation are misinforming the public,” she said. “Walrus numbers are up considerably from the 1960s, although they are notoriously difficult to count. Population sizes may fluctuate for a number of reasons that have little to do with the low ice levels.”
Crockford notes that recent episodes of mass walrus beachings — which occurred in 2009, 2011 and 2014 — did not coincide with the lowest levels of Arctic summer sea ice. These lowest levels occurred in 2007 and 2012.
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