Are walrus at risk from climate change?

The Guardian reports, 4th October 2014: A mass haul out of 35,000 animals on an Alaska beach doesn’t bode well for the future of wildlife dependent on the Arctic ice.

The huge gathering of walrus near Point Lay, Alaska.


The huge gathering of walrus near Point Lay, Alaska.
Photograph: Corey Accardo/AP

Thirty-five thousand walrus on a beach in Alaska, rolling in filth and the carcasses of their kin, have become the unwitting new poster children for climate change.

Within hours of newspapers covering the striking photographs, the walrus and their reason for being on that forlorn shore became enmeshed in the politics of climate change. “This is what climate change looks like,” said WWF. Climate sceptics immediately produced evidence that showed the haul out was nothing out of the ordinary.

Both sides were guilty of simplification. But it is almost certain climate change forced the walrus ashore at Point Lay and it places the species’ future in jeopardy. The walrus, almost all of them females and calves, should be spending their summer on the fringes of the Arctic sea ice. But the ice is gone.

The coastal walrus haulouts that form during periods of sea ice scarcity in the Chukchi Sea are composed primarily of adult female walruses and young, as well as some adult male walruses.

The coastal walrus haulouts that form during periods of sea ice scarcity in the Chukchi Sea are composed primarily of adult female walruses and young, as well as some adult male walruses.
Photograph: Ryan Kingsbery/USGS

The walrus haul out is a highly visible symptom of an ecosystem which appears to already be in an irreversible decline. “It is dramatic,” says Kit Kovacs of the Norwegian Polar Institute. “It is extremely likely that it is the direct result of climate change. For Arctic animals, climate change sucks. They are really adapted to the specific conditions.”

And what of the future for the walrus? “We are looking at declining walrus numbers,” Kovacs says. “But extinction? I wouldn’t make that prediction.”

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says climate change will affect the walrus, particularly those of the Bering and Chukchi seas: “Although the global population is undoubtedly still quite large, there is evidence of declining populations in two of the subspecies. Climate change is expected to have negative consequences for Walruses, and particularly severe consequences for the Pacific subspecies.”

Julienne Stroeve, a senior research scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre says the link between the walrus haul out and the sea ice decline fits with her observations: “It certainly is plausible. The melt season in general is starting earlier than it used to (the exception being the Bering Sea which has had a trend to more extensive winter ice), and the ice losses have been particularly large in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The Bering Sea melts out every summer, so it’s more the timing of when the ice disappears that would be relevant in that region, and the timing when it comes back.”

The outlook for the ice, and the consequent fate of the walrus and many other animals that live on the fringes of the ice, is grim. “All climate models show that the ice cover will eventually disappear in summer if the planet continues to warm. It will still come back in winter for quite a while though,” says Stroeve.

Source: The Guardian, 3rd October 2014. For the full text, see www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/03/walrus-alaska-beach-climate-change-arctic-ice

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