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: