On Friday, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) photographed an estimated 10,000 walrus crowded onto a beach on a barrier island near Point Lay, an Inupiat Eskimo village 700 miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska.
Unable to find sea ice over shallow Arctic Ocean water, the walrus began coming ashore in mid-September.
On Sept. 12, approximately 2,000 to 4,000 walrus were photographed at the same site. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that manages walrus conservation, immediately took action to prevent a stampede.
Stampedes can be triggered by polar bears, hunters or low-flying airplanes. The agency works with local villages to keep planes and humans at a safe distance.
Young walrus are particularly vulnerable during stampedes. More than 130 walrus remains were found after a stampede in September of 2009 at Alaska’s Icy Cape.
The warming climate, and the resulting loss of summer sea ice, is responsible for the gathering of walrus on shore in recent years.
Pacific walrus call the Bering Sea home during the winter months. They use ice as a diving platform to reach snails, clams, mussels and krill on the shallow sea floor, diving to a depth of up to 328 feet. Females also give birth on the sea ice.
As water temperatures begin to rise in the summer, the sea ice recedes north. Females and their young hitch a ride on the edge of the ice into the Chukchi Sea.
In recent years, however, the sea ice has receded farther north into the Arctic Ocean. With a depth of 10,000 feet or more, the walrus are unable to dive to the bottom for food.
Scientists first noticed large numbers of walrus on the U.S. side of the Chukchi Sea in 2007. In 2011, scientists recorded about 30,000 walrus along just one kilometer of beach near Point Lay.
“In addition to photographing the walrus haulout area, NOAA scientists documented more bowhead whales, including calves and feeding adults in the Beaufort Sea this summer compared to 2012,” said NOAA Fisheries marine mammal scientist Megan Ferguson. “We are also seeing more gray whale calves in the Chukchi Sea than we have in recent years.”
The goal of the NOAA’s annual arctic marine mammal aerial survey is to record the abundance of bowhead, gray, minke, fin and beluga whales, as well as other marine mammals, in areas sought after for potential oil and natural gas development.
Environmental groups, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, say the loss of sea ice due to a warming climate is harmful to marine mammals. Oil and gas development would only add to their stress.
Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries
Source: Huffington Post