There’s no shortage of data and charts out there making the case that Arctic sea ice decline is a real and persistent problem. But the point is also made pretty strongly by this photo taken Friday by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It depicts over 10,000 Pacific walruses huddled on the shore of Alaska’s northwest coast, unable to find their usual ice floes.
According to the researchers, the walruses have been hauling themselves ashore since mid-September. For them to do so is a “relatively new phenomenon,” said Megan Ferguson, a marine mammal scientist with the NOAA. From the Associated Press:
Pacific walrus spend winters in the Bering Sea. Females give birth on sea ice and use ice as a diving platform to reach snails, clams and worms on the shallow continental shelf.
As temperatures warm in summer, the edge of the sea ice recedes north. Females and their young ride the edge of the sea ice into the Chukchi Sea. However, in recent years, sea ice has receded north beyond continental shelf waters and into Arctic Ocean water 10,000 feet deep or more where walrus cannot dive to the bottom.
Walrus in large numbers were first spotted on the U.S. side of the Chukchi Sea in 2007. They returned in 2009, and in 2011, scientists estimated 30,000 walruses along one kilometer of beach near Point Lay.
That so many of the animals are packed in one place poses a stampede risk. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to keep people and airplanes from spooking the herd. It’s unclear how the government shutdown has affected this effort, or the NOAA’s plans to continue to monitor the area.