In what can only be described as yet another depressing harbinger of doom, the Pacific walruses in the normally frigid Chukchi Sea have decided, “everybody out.” The USGS has been monitoring the Arctic walruses’ movements, foraging areas, and sea ice habitats through satellite radio-tags attached to our blubbery buddies since June/July 2010. This year, the annual sea ice retreat has taken an unusual if not unexpected turn for the dramatic.
Arctic sea ice has melted back more than usual, with about 3 times less ice compared to most other years in recent history. Not only is there less ice, but that which remains is fragmented, spotty, and thin. This poses a serious problem if you weigh almost 2000 pounds and need a place to rest while you feed your young with one eye open for polar bears. The solution – go to ground. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and onto dry land. An estimated 10-20,000 walruses are doing just that right now in Point Lay, Alaska.
This isn’t the first haulout, similar behaviors have been observed last year and in 2007. Both times the walruses brought problems to land with them. Let’s face it; they’re built for comfort, not speed. Substantial girth becomes even more difficult to maneuver on land without the natural buoyancy effect of water. Slowly moving stampedes have left hundreds of walruses crushed to death, many of them calves.
Check out this link to the USGS walrus radio tracking animation website for a lovely scientific illustration of “What I did on my summer vacation, walrus style”. It will be interesting to see what happens to the ice and walruses through November when the study is slated to end.