Are walruses the latest canaries in the climate-destroying coal-mine?

The real effects of climate change: The carcasses of up to 200 dead walruses piled on an Alaskan shore are seen in this image taken earlier this month

Polar bears are the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of climate-change-endangered Arctic species.  They get all the press (see Will polar bears go extinct by 2030? and Bush launches Unendangered Species List, phones “Rename the Polar Bear” winner“).  But not-so-photogenic animals will suffer at the hands of human-caused global warming, too.  World Wildlife Fund’s Nick Sundt looks at impacts on walruses in a post first published on WWF’s climate blog.  And yes, I’m much more concerned about impacts on humans (see “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water” and Let’s Dump “Earth Day”). Click to enlarge the above AP photo of a congregation of walruses.

Just days after Arctic sea ice receded to the third lowest extent on record, forcing thousands of walruses ashore, researchers flying along the Alaska coast stumbled upon a grisly scene: 100 to 200 walrus carcasses along the shoreline of Icy Cape, southwest of Barrow.  The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner carried an editorial (likely written before the dead walruses were reported) saying:

Reports of thousands of walrus forming unusual congregations on Alaska’s North Slope appear to confirm again the environmental challenges posed by relatively low fall ice coverage within arctic water….  Alaskans should be watching these barometers of climate change carefully as the debate rages about what can or should be done.

By 12 September, Arctic sea ice had receded to the third lowest extent on record [see here]. On 16 September, we reported in As Sea Ice Reaches Annual Minimum, Impacts of Arctic Warming Grow :

As in 2007, walruses have gathered along the northwest coast of Alaska as sea ice retreated beyond the continental shelf. When the edge of the ice recedes beyond the edge of the shelf, it is over water too deep for the walruses to feed in; they are forced to feed from land rather than from the sea ice. On 8 September, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced a review of the walrus’ status, to determine whether it should be added to the list of threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. According to the FWS, the decision was based “in part, upon projected changes in sea ice habitats associated with climate change.”

Walruses have not just been gathering along the Alaska shoreline. The scene is being repeated elsewhere in the Arctic. WWF Polar Bear coordinator Geoff York returned on 17 September from a trip along the Russian coast and saw a haul out there with an estimated 20,000 walruses near Ryrkaipiy (on the Chukchi Peninsula). As he reported in a blog entry on 4 September:

“Walrus had not occupied this area in recent memory and definitely not in these numbers… We do know that walrus throughout the Chukchi have been abandoning the sea ice completely when it recedes out beyond the continental shelves. We know this from animals tracked by satellite tags and also from observations along both the Chukotka and Alaskan coasts of walrus appearing in large numbers and in areas they have never been seen before.”

See additional details on the impacts of receding sea ice on walruses in the U.S. Geological Survey’s fact sheet, Pacific Walrus Response to Arctic Sea Ice Losses.

According to Walruses Gather as Ice Melts in the Arctic Sea, Associated Press, 17 Sep 2009:

Chad Jay, a U.S. Geological Survey walrus researcher, said last week about 3,500 walruses were near Icy Cape on the Chukchi Sea, about 140 miles southwest of Barrow….Walruses for years came ashore intermittently during their fall southward migration but not so early and not in such numbers. `This is actually all new,’ Jay said. `They did this in 2007, and it’s a result of the sea ice retreating off the continental shelf.’…  Federal managers and researchers say walruses hauling out on shore could lead to deadly stampedes and too much pressure on prey within swimming range.

Also on 17 September, journalists reported that 100 to 200 dead walruses had been spotted along the shoreline at Icy Cape by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (see Carcasses of dead walruses spotted on Alaska coast, Juneau Empire, 18 Sep 2009). The USGS researchers were flying along the Alaska coast. Until scientists on the ground can access the site and assess the situation, no specific cause of death can be determined.

UPDATE:  Nick sent me this article, “Riddle of 200 dead walruses discovered on the Alaskan shore,” which has the AP photo above (replacing the original photo I had) along with this one:

Dead Walruses

A stampede unfortunately is among the possibilities. According to the USGS fact sheet:

During autumn 2007, tens of thousands female and young walruses began using resting areas along the northern coast of Chukotka [Russia], after sea ice was no longer available. There, a few thousand mortalities were reported, apparently from trampling due to disturbances that caused adults to stampede into the water.

For details on that 2007 incident, see 3,000 walruses die in stampedes tied to climate: Shortage of sea ice on Russian side of Arctic led to crowded conditions (MSNBC, 14 Dec 2007 [JR:  photo below from that story])



** Pacific Walrus. Informative set of pages from the Center for Biological Diversity.

** Pacific Walrus Response to Arctic Sea Ice Losses. USGS fact sheet.

** Photos of Walruses. From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska.

** WWF International Climate Blog, Northeast Passage expedition diary:
**** Northeast Passage: Saving the Arctic, one walrus at a time, Sunday, September 13th, 2009
**** Northeast Passage: Observing walrus up close, Saturday, September 5th, 2009
**** Northeast Passage: A truly exceptional day, September 4th 2009

** Sailor Completes Norway-Alaska Trip. WWF Polar Bear coordinator Geoff York describes to Alaska Public Radio his experience on a WWF-supported Northeast Passage expedition.

** As Sea Ice Reaches Annual Minimum, Impacts of Arctic Warming Grow . WWF US climate blog,

27 Responses to Are walruses the latest canaries in the climate-destroying coal-mine?

  1. Nancy says:

    So our grandchildren will live in a world without walruses or polar bears because of our need for humongous houses, giant cars, even larger TVs and big macs. Unbelievable.

    I’m going to see “The Age of Stupid” on Monday night. Great title.

  2. K. Nockels says:

    I guess until Climate Change starts killing humans here in the US in these numbers we will continue to kill the rest of the planet with reckless abandon. What a sad commentary on the human condition, MONEY and Comfort above all else. The American way of life to the END. How sad!

  3. ken levenson says:

    Our grandchildren will see a world with half or more of current species extinct. The polar bears and walruses are just the first off the gang plank….
    Also “looking forward” to seeing Age of Stupid…

  4. mark h says:

    I have a hard time understanding the psyche of guilt and hatred thrown at humans in general and modern civilization. Could things be better? Of course. I’m curious to hear what would be your description of the perfect world civilization and how that would work given human nature. I’m not trying to start an arguement, just trying to learn.

    [JR: No hatred here for humans. Grave disappointment at our political leadership, status quo media, opinionmakers, though. If you’d like to learn what I call the climate science realist perspective, read the various posts on the right hand side bar, starting with “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water.”

    I don’t tend to focus on climate impacts on animals, but this story seemed timely, the kind of thing I like to post on weekends. I’d say 99% of my posts on climate impacts focus on the staggering threat to the health and well-being of humans: How our refusal to spend the tiniest fraction of our vast wealth on a rapid transition to clean energy will doom the next 50 generations — including your extended family’s children and grandchildren — to a ruined climate. It ain’t about a “perfect world civilization” or even whether “things” could be “better” now.]

  5. BBHY says:

    “Only when the last tree has died,
    The last river has been poisoned,
    The last fish has been caught,
    Will we realize that we can’t eat money”

    (Thank you to Ban T-Shirts).

  6. Jamihl Aghmad says:

    “Until scientists on the ground can access the site and assess the situation, no cause of death can be determined.”

    And the above responses talk about killing humans, polar bears, out children, guilt, hatred. We know it isn’t due to sea ice loss because the pic shows thousands that are alive.

  7. K. Nockels says:

    Mark, we could start with a change in how we look at the enviroment and strive for sustainability in everything we do and everything we use. Human nature is not at issue it is the cultural aspect of humans that truly tell us how to behave. Our learned responses from when we are children. The teaching of respect and selflessness these things learned as children tend to stay with us all our lives. So I can’t see us ever making this a perfect world but it could be a lot less about money and a lot more about when enough is enough. But I have to say also that I don’t see us coming around to this way of thinking before we come right to the edge of the cliff or even drive right off.

  8. K. Nockels says:

    Jamihl, I don’t see any of the Hatred you seem to see in these posts the Guiltis shared with us all so it is not directed at any one person but in the collective sense, but there will be death for millions if we do not change our ways and it will include our grandchildren, and all the animals that can’t adapt to CC in the short time that is left. What you see in that photo is not normal for this time of year in a walrus population, they do not gather in those numbers normally when pupping so it is not that there are not some still living there are but for how long?

  9. I hate the mascot that polar bears have become over the past years. Their absolute numbers have doubled since 1965, not exactly a sign of extinction.

    [JR: Well, most can’t realistically survive the loss of the ice, so they are most likely doomed.]

  10. Nancy says:


    Are you disputing the fact that when the Arctic is ice-free in a few years, polar bears will be extinct? How do you think they can survive?

    According to a report by the USGS, 2/3 of the world’s polar bear population of around 22,000 will be gone by the middle of this century, which is basically dooming them to extinction.

  11. K. Nockels says:

    Wow, the number of bears doubled after we stopped killing them for their skins which almost drove them to extinction. How good of us.

  12. paulm says:

    Polar bear population is under extreme stress…

    In the West Hudson Bay the total polar bear population has declined by 22 percent since the late 1980s, but even so the number of attacks on humans has more than tripled. Global warming has reduced the period where the bears are able to hunt their natural food source, seals, by three weeks.

    ”Previous research has postulated that climate change will boost numbers of problem bears. This is the first evidence for the link,” comments Andrew Derocher, a scientist in Stirling’s team.

  13. paulm says:

    The collapse of the ecosystem is coming much faster than we had expected. This with just 0.8C increase in global temp. See below.

    Now consider that there is another 0.8C plus 0.8C in the pipe line that we can do nothing about. I am afraid Lovelock is right.

    Experts can’t explain B.C. salmon collapse
    [This is the 3rd yr of low returns and the worst case]

    We are also see what seems to be the collapse of the bear population in the North West on the coast.

    An ecosystem in turmoil puts its predators at risk

    …the chum salmon run has declined from 40,000 fish a few years ago to 1,000 this year. In another he swam 12 kilometres without seeing a single chum.

    … bears are starving because of a multiyear collapse of salmon stocks.

    First the salmon vanished, now the bears may be gone too.

    “The collapse of the Fraser sockeye and now the north-coast chum salmon runs is leading to ecological collapse of our coast ecosystems,” said Mr. McAllister.

  14. This is a good article. The issue should be getting more attention.

  15. ecostew says:

    Paulm – In the pipeline and coming, but positive feed-backs are likely to make intensification of AGW far worse. And, we increasingly add to the pipeline – the global seventh generation will never forgive us (especially the USA).

  16. raleigh Latham says:

    It makes my head want to explode when I read headlines that mention fisheries collapsing and the devastating effect it has on bears, and predators, and don’t even connect it with global warming. Most of these major media stories read like…for some MYSTERY REASON, fisheries are collapsing across the northwest…I want a hurricane to hit Washington D.C the second they are debating the Climate Bill so no corrupt oil funded senator from south carolina or dakota can keep sidestepping action. Only when dirt from the plains flooded into Congress in 1936 did the Senate finally act to do something the Dust Bowl.

  17. raleigh Latham says:

    bleh, sorry about the typos in my comment.

  18. Phil Eisner says:

    Since I got no response to my comment asking for a march on Washington, perhaps polar bears and walruses should march!! We must animate some kind of march – the politicians are awfully slow.
    Who thinks they will have a major law passed to lower our CO2 emissions before the Copenhagen Conference?

  19. paulm says:

    raleigh, it makes me want to too.

    Here in Canada its just as bad as in the US. The MSM are all controlled by the big guys and they just hardly ever mention the connection.

    And when they do its always tucked away in the science section or somewhere deep. They don’t even have environment sections like the Europeans.

    The average person here is clueless on the climate change situation. I can’t even get my family and friends enthused. Its extremely frustrating.

  20. Robert E. Phelan says:

    It might be a good idea to take a close look at the photo again. Every one of those carcasses seems to be bleeding from the head.

  21. paulm says:

    Seems we all are downstream now…what big money/oil can achieve.


    Downstream focuses on the controversy surrounding the development of Alberta’s oil sands. This beautifully photographed documentary is an eye-opening investigation into one of the world’s most polluting oil operations.

    It includes interviews with ecologists, Canadian politicians, local residents and a very dedicated doctor, discussing the environmental, economic and health issues surrounding the oil sands development.

  22. john says:

    The folks who try to put up a firewall between what global warming is doing to other species, and its impact on humans, simply don’t understand how ecosystems work.

    As Lovelock pointed out, Donne was right — to paraphrase, Man is not an island – we are a part of a fabric, and we are ripping it with a casualness that can only displayed by those ignorant of its existence and its consequences.

    There’s a case to be made for a moral and ethical responsibility to protect and preserve other species. But there is also a more pragamatic case — what we do to other species, we do also to ourselves.

    So that is the source of the guilt and loathing you detect. As Elizabeth Kolbert put it in the conclusion of her excellent book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe,

    “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

    the fact that we are taking 70% of the speicies down with us, is just that much more heinous.

  23. Gail says:

    John, people often also don’t understand how evolution works. Species are dependent on each other, and on a stable environment. You can’t alter a major component – say, temperature – without triggering mass extinctions. It’s all clear in the paleoclimatic record.

    I have spent this morning writing to my two senators and all the others mentioned in this article about the reckless addition of ethanol to gasoline, and also the attempt in the Senate to limit the EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, which would be a travesty:

  24. Mike D says:

    “It might be a good idea to take a close look at the photo again. Every one of those carcasses seems to be bleeding from the head.”

    You would have blood coming out of your head too if all your internal organs were crushed by thousands of tons of stampeding marine mammal.

  25. Robin Ritman says:

    Mark H.the reason people are throughing hate and blame at our civilization and species is because our activities ruining this planet and driving many other species towards extiction.We do not have the right to do this.We are pimates with big brains that took a long time to evolve.We should start using them to preserve this planet..not destroy it.

  26. Robert E. Phelan says:

    Mike D.

    I can’t claim expertise on the subject, but I do believe trampling, even by marine mammals, leaves very little blood. I could find only one photo of a known trampled walrus here:

    notice any difference? I’m content to wait for the reports from the marine biologists on the scene before demanding action, but if I were absolutely forced to speculate, I’d suggest forming a posse to round up the usual Inuit poaching suspects and see if they are in possession of a hundred sets of walrus ivory.

  27. Mark Gelbart says:

    I doubt climate change caused this. Walruses survived during the most recent interglacial, the Sangamonian, when the north polar ice cap melted completely. Walruses used to live as far south as South Carolina and probably Florida. Human overhunting is probably the cause of their historical range reduction.