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

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:

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])

Resources:

** 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,