Lack of ice forces walruses to shore | WWF

Lack of ice forces walruses to shore

Posted on 28 September 2012    
Walrus haulout. Ryrkaypiu, Chukotka, Russia.
Walrus haulout. Ryrkaypiu, Chukotka, Russia, 2007.
© Tom Arnbom
Walruses are heading for land on Alaska’s northern shore. Land is not a good place for the walrus to be — sea ice is their preferred platform for resting and feeding. But this year, as in four of the five previous years, ice is hard to come by. As a result, female and young walruses in need of a resting spot are again heading to shore to haul out, huddling together in abnormally large numbers. These mass congregations are dangerous and can lead to violent stampedes that are often deadly, especially to young walruses.

“As in past years, it now appears likely that we again will see large numbers of walruses forced onto Alaska's beaches”, says Nick Sundt of WWF. “These iconic images will starkly illustrate the massive disruption that is occurring in the Arctic as the region rapidly warms.”

Read more: WWF-US Climate blog

Increasing haul out size is closely tied to reduced sea ice extent, a result of global climate change. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, forcing animals that depend on sea ice to adapt quickly, or perish. This month, Arctic sea ice extent declined to the lowest level on record, with a speed that shocked researchers.

Changes in ice extent are spurring haul outs in other parts of the Arctic as well. In 2007, WWF walrus expert Tom Arnbom visited Chukotka, Russia, and was shocked to encounter hundreds of dead walruses along the shoreline. In total, well over 1,000 walruses had been trampled to death that year, many of them small pups.

Large haul outs also create challenges for people living on the Arctic coast. The walruses attract polar bears, which can then come into conflict with nearby villages.  Since 1996, WWF has worked with communities in Russia, and later Alaska, to support “Polar Bear Patrols” -  local groups that monitor polar bear and walrus populations, and deter human-bear conflict.

To safeguard new haul out sites for walruses and protect them from disturbances that could cause them to panic and trample the young, WWF worked with Russian authorities to create nature reserves for the two most important haul out areas in Eastern Russia.

WWF supports research to ensure a future for walruses-- from an innovative project using satellite imagery to monitor populations, to mapping key no-go zones for industrial development, to identifying the habitat that will be most resilient in a warming Arctic.

The WWF Arctic Programme's Geoff York witnesses the incredible - and worrying - sight of an estimated 20,000 walrus on shore at Ryrkaipiy on the Chukchi Sea in Russia in 2009.
Walrus haulout. Ryrkaypiu, Chukotka, Russia.
Walrus haulout. Ryrkaypiu, Chukotka, Russia, 2007.
© Tom Arnbom Enlarge
Two large walrus haulouts near Point Lay, Alaska, 2011.
© WWF / Blaine Thorn (National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Enlarge

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