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Pacific walruses hauled out on a remote barrier island in the Chukchi Sea, near Pt. Lay.

Pacific walruses hauled out on a remote barrier island in the Chukchi Sea, near Pt. Lay.

Photograph by Stan Churches, NOAA Fisheries

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published October 2, 2013

An estimated ten thousand Pacific walruses have huddled together on a remote island in the Chukchi Sea (map), an unusual phenomenon that's due to a lack of sea ice, experts say.

The giant marine mammal is known to "haul out"—literally haul its body onto ice or land to rest or warm up—on various places along the Arctic coast.

But with the Arctic warming up and melting much of its floating ice, there are limited areas for the walruses to gather. This forces them to cluster on land in huge aggregations rarely before seen. (See more walrus pictures.)

In 2011, 30,000 walruses hauled out along a stretch of beach less than a mile long, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which took aerial pictures of the most recent walrus gathering.

Scientists first noted that such large terrestrial haulouts along Alaska's coast in 2007 and reports have increased in the past five years, said Pam Tuomi, senior veterinarian at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

That mirrors the effect of warming temperatures in the Arctic, which is in the throes of a "long-term, downward trend" in sea ice cover, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

In 2013, the Arctic experienced its sixth lowest minimum extent, or the period when sea ice cover is at its smallest.

The walrus haulouts are "another one of the symptoms of the changes that are occurring in the Arctic Ocean," Tuomi said, "and they are causing cascading effects."

On Thin Ice

The Pacific walrus as a species is suffering due to its shrinking habitat—the animal's numbers are declining, and it is currently listed as "threatened" and may soon be upgraded to "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, Tuomi said.

Meanwhile, the large haulouts are putting individual animals at risk. For one, if something like an airplane flying overhead spooks one of the mammals, it may spark a stampede into the water. During their panic, the heavy animals—which can weigh up to 1.5 tons (1.4 metric tons)—may trample other walruses to death, especially young ones, she said.

"It's like yelling fire at a movie theater," she said.

In addition, so many animals in such close quarters could increase the likelihood of a disease outbreak. In 2011 a mysterious, fatal disease swept through a population of ringed seals in Alaska and there was concern that some walruses might also have been affected, she noted. (Also see "New Diseases, Toxins Harming Marine Life.")

The disease may have spread from one population of marine mammal to another—for instance, ringed seals in Russia—and they weren't mixed together in a dense aggregation. A disease outbreak in a crowded haulout could be even deadlier.

21 comments
David Curry
David Curry

Christine, reading your article caused pause for reflection on whether or not I really wanted to continue supporting National Geographic with personal and gift subscriptions to grandchildren.   It can only be interpreted as displaying unreserved acceptance of the dubious proposition that "terrestrial haulouts" reflect "global warming."

ian a.
ian a.

I think that its interesting that walruses group like that and global warming wont kill the walruses as much as it will help them as they evolve better  through everything  

Joe Sandiego
Joe Sandiego

Hahahahahaha!!!  Gullibles.   You people believe anything.   How about it is warmer on the rocks than on the ice.  Consequently it is a popular spot.  Standing room only.  

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

Interesting article Nat geo, I think you should get a comment from your arctic photography expert Paul Nicklen and ask him what he thinks about this!

Shankar Iyer
Shankar Iyer

Well, what a wonderful sight!! Incredible.


Ste Schlappi
Ste Schlappi

This is why so many people have stopped believing the global warming people. Does that picture signal "endangered species" to you?

Jim Steele
Jim Steele

“Thousands of walruses on Alaskan beaches was typical before ivory hunters drove them from the shores. Capt Bernard published 2 papers in the 1920s about how wise hunting regulations allowed the walrus to return to the shores of Siberia and lobbied to create preserves to encourage the return of the walrus to Alaskan shore. The sight of 10,000 walrus you make his heart leap with joy. That their return has been hijacked as an example of climate catastrophe would mae the good captain turn in his grave, especially in a year when sea ice witnessed a 60% recovery. Read Local Walrus Protection in Northeast Siberia

Author(s): Joseph F. Bernard Source: Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Nov., 1923), pp. 224-227”Also read the 1982 publication by the US Fish and wildlife Service titled ECOLOGY AND BIOLOGY OF THE PACIFIC WALRUS, ODOBENUS ROSMARUS DIVERGENS ILLIGER  by Francis H. Fay.

He documents how hunting drove many walruses from traditional land haul outs. He reports how polar bears in the Laptev Sea dig pits and hide behind piles of driftwood waiting for the walruses to come ashore.  A high percentage of the male walruses in the Bering Sea do not follow the receding ice northward but migrate southward to Bristol Bay and the Aleutians. Sea ice is not a critical factor. In fact before the 1980s Russian Biologist wrote that sea ice was detrimental because it prevented access to the shallow bottoms needed for foraging.   I wrote a whole chapter on the history walrus hunting and their recovery. The larger the herd the greater the numbers that come ashore. This is another example of climate change advocates hijacking a conservation success story to create climate fear. http://landscapesandcycles.net

Myron Mesecke
Myron Mesecke

The University of Illinois' Cryosphere Today shows a huge increase in Bering sea ice.

http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/recent365.anom.region.2.html

The Danish Meteorology Institute shows that the Arctic above 80N had cooler than normal temperatures for the entire summer.

http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/meant80n.uk.php

What is more telling is the rapid increase in ice this year now that we are past the peak of the melt season. An over 60% increase over last year.

http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/icecover.uk.php

Is the picture from 2011 like the text seems to suggest? Reuters is using a photo from 2011 for this story. And I found a story from 2010 about Walrus coming ashore.  It has been getting colder in the Arctic since then. If this isn't a 2013 photo one has to wonder why this story is being told now when the facts regarding the Arctic ice is quite different from 2011.

Perhaps because the IPCC just released AR5 and it makes a bigger splash?

That's not how science and truth work.

Cindy Black
Cindy Black

@Ste Schlappi GOOD GRIEF... if one has the brains God gave a newt, all he/she has to do is access the vast scientific proof that global warming is indeed caused or certainly intensified by HUMAN ACTIVITIES.  And the globe is undoubtedly warming rapidly.  Does 2 plus 2 equal 4?  Apparently not to the flat-earthers.  

Daniel Modell
Daniel Modell

@Ste Schlappi That is an ignorant comment. An endangered species is one whose habitat or food source is threatened, often to the point where it must rapidly adapt, or face widespread starvation. That is what will happen when this one can no longer keep up with the changes in its environment.

Melissa Doroquez
Melissa Doroquez

@Ste Schlappi Yes, it does. Do you know how many individuals are required to keep a species viable? It is not two. There will not be enough genetic diversity for a stable species if their environs are eliminated by much more.

Scott Walters
Scott Walters

@Ste Schlappi Are you serious? If anything, this is only proof that global warming is happening. It's an indicator that the ice is melting due to the warming of the Earth, forcing them to go to land. It's only a matter of time before the land starts to warm forcing them to other areas until eventually they have no where else to go and start to die off. In addition, endangered species or extinct species are just one of the results of global warming, not the cause of it. So, I fail to see the correlation in your comment.

Robert P.
Robert P.

@Jim Steele  

...yeah, except now atmospheric CO2 is 400 PPM for the first time in millions of years-- a typical carbonated soda is 150 PPM ... further, you conveniently omitted the fact that the 2013 Arctic sea ice winter extent is still the 5th lowest since satellite tracking began. Additionally, overall temperature has increased 1.45 degrees Fahrenheit, since record keeping began.

Colorado Bob
Colorado Bob

@Jim Steele

Alaska Village Grapples With Collapse in Walrus Harvest

GAMBELL, Alaska—For as long as many here can remember, hunters in this Eskimo village where the mountains of Siberia are clearly visible have managed to kill enough walruses to provide food that lasts through the brutal Arctic winter.

But after harvesting only 108 walruses this year—one sixth the average—the island community of 690 residents is rushing to find alternate sources of food before winter sets in. Other towns have offered donations of reindeer and fish, but tribal officials say it isn't enough to offset the shortage. Villagers say they can't afford to shop at the one full-service store because prices there can be three times as high as on the mainland.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304795804579101440469640728.html

Jim Steele
Jim Steele

@Robert Parker I didn't conveniently omit it  because it is a non factor. I suggest instead you conveniently try to force  a connection with a fact that has little affect on the health of the walrus.

Jim Steele
Jim Steele

@Colorado Bob @Jim Steele ONe of the reasons the USGS has not been able to generate a statistically reliable population estimate for walrus is due their migratory habits. HUge herds will diminish resources in one place and move elsewhere. Ocean Oscillations alter the supply of nutrients. So I have no doubt there will be villages that will suffer periodic collapses in harvest. How do you square this collapse with the above quote that "large terrestrial haulouts along Alaska's coast in 2007 and reports have increased in the past five years" ?

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