Tag Archives: Chukchi Sea

Polar Bears Are Spending More Time on Land During the Summer

Polar bears are spending more time on land than ever before. To be exact, bears around the Chuchki Sea are spending a month longer on land during the summer, according to a new study.

Research wildlife biologist with the Alaska Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey and lead author Karyn Rode says:

“They are spending approximately 30 more days on land, which is pretty substantial in the summer. Where they come on land during the summer is changing because of the ice conditions…They’re either sitting, laying or standing. They aren’t moving around very much to forage,” she said. “When we look at this activity sensor, it’s incredibly low.”

The researchers analyzed data from radio collars on 103 female polar bears between 1986-1996 and compared them to data from 47 bears in 2008-2013. They found that bears now spend a month longer on land, that almost twice as many bears spend their summers on land and that more than 90% of time on land is spent resting.

So far, this has not affected the bears’ nutrition, but there is debate about whether polar bears can sustain themselves on a land-based diet. As the summer sea ice continues to melt, polar bears will likely spend more and more time onshore and, unfortunately, recent studies show that polar bears’ cannot sustain themselves during long periods of famine. In addition, more time onshore will increase the chance of conflict with humans.

Rode says:

“The results of our study are consistent with studies in other regions where polar bears have experienced substantial sea ice loss. As sea ice loss occurs, polar bears increasingly use land habitats where they have minimal to no access to their marine mammal prey and are increasingly likely to interact with humans.”

Featured image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters / CC BY 2.0

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

Shell Abandons Arctic Drilling, Obama Cancels 2016 and 2017 Offshore Oil Leases

In July, the U.S. government gave its approval to Royal Dutch Shell to begin exploratory drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska. In September, Shell abandoned its efforts for the “foreseeable future.”

The announcement came after weeks of exploration over the summer, where drilling down to 6,800 feet indicated that oil and gas findings were “not sufficient to warrant further exploration.”

Drilling in the Arctic region would have threatened a great deal of wildlife and people. The region is home to populations of whales, walruses, polar bears, seabirds and other wildlife, as well as local people and communities.

The original drilling site itself would have been risky, too. It was 70 miles from the shore of Alaska and 1,000 miles away from the nearest U.S. Coast Guard station. This, along with with the thick ice and rough sea conditions, would have made it very difficult to detect and contain an accident or oil spill.

Photo by Petr Litvintsev / CC BY-ND 2.0
Photo by Petr Litvintsev / CC BY-ND 2.0

Moreover, Shell has had trouble drilling in the recent past, despite spending an estimated $7 billion on exploring the Arctic for seven years. Problems have included damaged vessels, malfunctioning safety equipment, on-board fires and, most noteworthy, the loss of control of its drilling rig in January 2013. That rig ended up grounding on a pristine island in the Gulf of Alaska, proving just how damaging drilling can be even without oil spills.

Director of WWF’s Global Arctic Programme Alexander Shestakov says:

“Shell’s experience illustrates that further investments in oil development in the Arctic are not worth the risk to Arctic life and livelihoods. We hope this will provide a reality check to other companies considering the unpredictable proposition of Arctic drilling, and that investors will transition their funds instead toward low-carbon solutions.”

Photo by NOAA's National Ocean Service / CC BY 2.0
Photo by NOAA’s National Ocean Service / CC BY 2.0

In addition, the Obama Administration cancelled two potential Arctic offshore oil lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort sea that were also jeopardizing the region. These lease sales were originally scheduled for 2016 and 2017, under the current five-year offshore oil and gas leasing program for 2012-2017. The decision to cancel came in late October and was based on poor market conditions and low industry interest. Fortunately, this decision will mitigate future threats to the region.

These actions represent big wins for environmental and conservation groups like Greenpeace in the battle against fossil fuel burning and greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, they are big wins for the wildlife that resides in the Arctic, the local people and the environment in general.

Featured image by Petr Litvintsev / CC BY-ND 2.0