Scientist estimate 10,000 walrus have come ashore on Alaska’s northwest coast as they are unable to find sea ice over shallow Arctic Ocean. The walrus are packed onto a beach on a barrier island near Point Lay, which is about 300 miles southwest of Barrow and home to the Inupiat Eskimo village, according to the AP on Oct. 1.
Since mid-September scientists have monitored this large herd when it was spotted during NOAA’s annual Arctic marine mammal survey. This is a dangerous situation for the walrus and it is believed that climate warming is causing the ice to recede in towards the shore.
Normally the walrus would set up home on the ice over the shallow water of the Bering Sea. The females give birth and the ice gives them the perfect diving platform to go down to the ocean bottom of the shallow water and bring up food which consists of clams, snails and worms found on the shallow continental shelf.
Ice over deep water is of no use to the walrus as they can’t dive into the deep Atlantic Ocean where the only ice is available to them today. The ice is over water that is 10,000-feet deep, which is too deep for the walrus to dive for food.
This has brought the walrus to Alaska’s shores and this is a dangerous condition for the mammals. One of the most feared scenarios is a stampede, which will kill a number of walrus, mostly young. This has happened in the past leaving walrus carcasses in the wake of a stampede, according to ABC News.
The young walrus are especially vulnerable in a stampede. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency that manages walrus took immediate steps to prevent a stampede this year, as they have in the past. They work with the neighboring villages to keep people and aircraft away from the walrus.
The receding ice has been progressing over the last decade, with the walrus first spotted on the U.S. side of the Chukchi Sea in 2007. They returned in 2009, which was the year a stampede left 130 dead walrus on the beach in September on Alaska’s Icy Cape. The walrus found dead during this event were mostly young. In 2011 the walrus were first spotted covering a kilometer stretch of a beach near Point Lay.
Something as simple as a polar bear or a human hunter can start a stampede, as can an airplane or helicopter flying above the herd. The walrus are shoulder to shoulder along the rocky coast line in some areas. According to NOAA, the phenomenon of the walrus gathering on shore coincides with the loss of summer sea ice as the climate has warmed.