In September of this year the absence of Arctic sea ice forced more than 35,000 Pacific walruses to come ashore on the northwestern Alaskan island of Point Lay. According to scientists global warming has melted the sea ice depriving the walruses of their usual habitat at this time of year. Walruses typically follow retreating sea ice setting up on floating platforms to give birth and raise their pups.
In the absence of ice, these walruses are forced to swim long distances to reach shore. This is not a new phenomenon and it is a corollary of melting sea ice in the Chukchi sea. Over the last decade there have been at least six years where this has been documented. However, the trend appears to be intensifying.
In 2010, some 20,000 walruses came ashore near Pt. Lay. In 2011, nearly 30,000 came ashore. In 2013, another 10,000 came ashore. This year the 35,000 walruses that were forced ashore which appears to be the largest number ever.
In addition to depriving walruses of birthing and feeding areas, the absence of ice which forces these animals ashore put them at risk of being trampled. This risk is especially elevated for the young. About 50 carcasses were observed at the site in September, but the cause of death has yet yet to be determined.
The walruses were spotted in an annual survey by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management called the Aerial Survey of Arctic Marine Mammals. It uses aircraft to track the number, distribution and migration of a number of key marine animals.
“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,” Margaret Williams, managing director at the World Wildlife Fund, told the AP.