Tens Of Thousands Walruses Huddle On Remote Island Near Alaska Due To Lack Of Sea Ice

By Lecia Bushak on October 4, 2013 7:38 PM EDT

(Polar Cruises, Creative Commons)
(Polar Cruises, Creative Commons)

Tens of thousands of Pacific walruses have gathered on a land island in the Chukchi Sea near Alaska in what is considered unprecedented, and experts believe it may have something to do with diminishing sea ice.

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Walruses normally "haul out" onto ice rather than land to rest, before returning into the sea in search of food. This September, groups of walruses have also been found "hauling out" to land at Cape Kozhevnikov in the Russian region of Chukotka, as well as Point Lay, Alaska.

Arctic Sea ice goes through an annual cycle. After a dark and cold winter, the ice reaches a maximum - then it begins to shrink throughout the spring and summer, reaching its minimum in September.

According to National Geographic, the Arctic experienced its sixth lowest minimum extent in 2013 - "the period when sea ice cover is at its smallest," Christine Dell'Amore writes. But walruses seeking out land due to lack of sea ice is not an entirely new phenomenon.

Pam Tuomi, senior veterinarian at the Alaska SeaLife Center, told National Geographic that the gathering of walruses on land in such huge numbers is "another one of the symptoms of the changes that are occurring in the Arctic Ocean...and they are causing cascading effects."

In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in Stockholm, Sweden that "over the past three decades, Arctic summer sea ice retreat was unprecedented...[a]nthropogenic influences have very likely contributed to Arctic sea ice loss since 1979." The IPCC also stated that the ice will be likely to continue shrinking.

Levels of Arctic sea ice have only been monitored by satellite since 1979, so it's not well known whether this year's ice amount is truly the sixth lowest in recent history.

Typically Pacific walruses will follow the shrinking ice to its edge, and from there will dive into the water for food, then back up onto the ice to rest. The Pacific walruses forced onto the remote island near Alaska were photographed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is working to protect the enormous herd of walruses from stampeding of the island, where larger walruses could trample the smaller, young walruses.

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