On Saturday, an estimated 35,000 walruses were photographed five miles north of Point Lay by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) during its annual Arctic marine mammal aerial survey.
Traditionally, walrus will winter in the Bering Sea, then migrate to the Chukchi in the summer. There, females will give birth on the floating ice, using it as a base for diving and gathering food: snails, clams and worms that live on the continental shelf. As summer temperatures rise, Arctic ice recedes into the north, with the walrus following.
However, in six of the last eight years, the Chukchi has not retained enough summer ice for walrus to use. This has been forcing them to come to shore to feed and give birth since 2007.
The amount of walrus spotted above Point Lay is large but comparable to a gathering in 2011. “It’s a good-sized aggregation, definitely,” said Chadwick Jay, a research ecologist and leader of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific walrus research program.
As Jay explained to Alaska Dispatch News, this year the last of the Chukchi’s summer ice was gone by mid-September: “Even that last little bit of ice disappeared and they came to shore.”
According to NASA, the Arctic Ocean is now losing about 13 percent of its sea ice every 10 years. This year, the annual low point for summer sea ice was recorded at its sixth lowest point since satellites began monitoring the area in 1979.
“We’ve lost an area equivalent to about a third of the United States,” says Nathan Kurtz, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It goes up and down every year, but the long-term trend is that we’ve been losing a lot of sea ice.”
That makes conditions rough for walruses, who cannot swim indefinitely and need the floating ice to rest. What sea ice does remain is now farther north, beyond the continental shelf and above waters too deep for walruses to reach the bottom.
“It’s another remarkable sign of the dramatic environmental conditions changing as the result of sea ice loss,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program. “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.”
Photo: Corey Accardo / NOAA via AP