Why Thousands of Walruses Were Forced Ashore in Alaska This Summer

Arctic ice is melting at an extreme pace, due to climate change, and it’s threatening the walrus. The melting ice is so drastic, it is forcing thousands of walruses to crowd onto the shore of a remote barrier island off Alaska.

The first reported sighting of the walruses came from a photographer on August 23 on the shore of the Chukchi Sea. It was then confirmed 4 days later by villagers in the remote area of Point Lay, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Photo by Captain Budd Christman, NOAA Corps., NOAA Photo Library / CC BY 2.0
Photo by Captain Budd Christman, NOAA Corps., NOAA Photo Library / CC BY 2.0

Such huge gatherings, called haul-outs, are dangerous because walruses are easily spooked by aircrafts or onlookers, which could cause potentially fatal stampedes. Last year, as many as 40,000, mostly females and their young, were forced ashore – the largest known haul-out of its kind in the U.S. Arctic. – and around 60 young walruses were killed because of crowding and stampedes.

The Federal Aviation Authority had to re-route flights and tell pilots to keep their distance to avoid stampedes. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros told The Guardian:

“Walruses often flee haul-outs in response to the sight, sound, or odor of humans or machines. Walruses are particularly sensitive to changes in engine noise and are more likely to stampede off beaches when planes turn or fly low overhead.”

Photo by South Bend Voice / CC BY 2.0
Photo by South Bend Voice / CC BY 2.0

Many of the walruses seem to prefer hauling out on these barrier islands north of the native village of Point Lay. The villagers dread these record size haul-outs, Point Lay tribal president Leo Ferreira III said:

“We do not believe that these sorts of visits are in the best interest of the walruses and they do not align with the haul out protection role we have developed and measures we set in place to prevent disturbances.”

Since 2000, these forced migrations and haul-outs have become an more and more common. But this year, the sea ice fell to new lows because of rising temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. Some scientists now believe that the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer months by the 2030s, which will have detrimental effects on surrounding human and wildlife populations.

Photo by South Bend Voice / CC BY 2.0
Photo by South Bend Voice / CC BY 2.0

Featured image by U.S. Geological Survey / CC0 1.0

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