Walrus Haulouts Observed Again on Alaska Shoreline

September 1, 2011

From Nick Sundt’s WWF Climate Blog:

Above: “Two large walrus haulouts (estimated sizes 5000 and 3000 animals)sighted during COMIDA flight 234 [PDF] [17 August 2011]. The haulouts were located slightly north of Pt. Lay, at 69.81N, 163.06W, separated from one another by a very short distance. In the vicinity of the sighting, the COMIDA team was flying the coastal transect one km offshore, with the aircraft at 1550’, and no reaction by the walruses was noted.” (click on image for larger high resolution image).  Source: Blaine Thorn (National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

We reported on 12 Aug that walruses, driven ashore by the lack of Arctic sea ice over shallow waters, were starting to “haul out” along the Alaskan shores of the Chukchi sea (see Arctic Weather Pattern Likely to Push Arctic Sea Ice Extent to Record Lows, Again Forcing Thousands of Walruses Ashore). Airborne observers now report that by 17 August, “[a]pproximately 8,000 walruses were observed hauled out on land slightly north of Point Lay [Alaska].”

The photo was taken during a survey flight of the Chukchi Offshore Monitoring in Drilling Area (COMIDA) marine mammal aerial survey project.  According to theNational Marine Mammal Laboratory, Cetacean Assessment & Ecology Program, Bowhead Whale Aerial Surveys Web site, the goal of the project and other surveys “is to document the distribution and relative abundance of bowhead, gray, right, and fin whales, belugas, and other marine mammals in areas of potential oil and natural gas exploration, development, and production activities in the Alaskan Beaufort and northeastern Chukchi Seas” (emphasis added).

As shown on the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Alaska Science Center page on Walrus radio-tracking in the southern Chukchi Sea 2011, by August 7 sea ice cover in the southern Chukchi Sea was already minimal and some radio-tagged walruses were beginning to haul-out on shore in Alaska.

This forced migration to shore began three weeks sooner than observed last year. The massive walrus haul-outs of 2010 began the fourth week of August (compare2010 and 2011 animations showing daily locations of radio-tagged walruses). Last year an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 walruses ultimately hauled-out on the Alaskan shoreline of the Chukchi Sea, mostly  near Point Lay. The long swim to shore, mostly by females and young walruses, poses risks for the animals; and they face further hardships onshore as they compete with large numbers of walruses for food and can be trampled by larger walruses.

These dangerously large walrus haul-outs in the Chukchi Sea are a direct result of extreme Arctic sea ice melt caused by climate change,” says Geoff York, a wildlife biologist with WWF’s Arctic Network Initiative.  Walruses, polar bears, and people in the Arctic are increasingly threatened by climate disruption, vividly demonstrating the urgent global need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare for the impacts.
We reported extensively on the large scale haul-outs of 2009 and 2010 along the Alaskan and Russian shores of the Chukchi Sea (access our coverage at Arctic Sea Ice Decline and its Impacts: Online Resources).  Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that the Pacific Walrus “is primarily threatened by the loss of sea ice in its arctic habitat due to climate change.
Those who don’t believe what scientists are telling us about temperature changes, might take a look at what animal movements are telling us.
Christian Science Monitor:
Researchers in Britain analyzed dozens of studies tracking changes in the ranges of some 1,376 species of plants, animals, and insects. They found that a warming climate is driving species toward higher latitudes at an average of nearly twice the pace that studies indicated in 2003. And species are migrating to higher altitudes nearly three times faster.

I produced a video, below, on the Walrus activities last year, and what Native people are telling us about it. Will be covering this year’s ice minimum as soon as we bottom out and know the final numbers.

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