In what just might become one of our loudest annual reminders that climate change is still happening, and at a frightening pace, thousands of walruses have once again gathered ashore in Alaska because they have nowhere else to go.
The haul-out, a result of extreme loss of ice in the Chukchi sea, on which the animals would typically rest and feed, made headlines last year when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released photos of a record 35,000 animals gathered ashore. This year, they were spotted by photographer Gary Braasch on August 23, making this, the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed, the earliest haul-out on record. (While haul-outs may have occurred in the past, the agency only began tracking them in 2007; they didn't occur in 2008 or 2012.)
It's a bad situation for the walruses, which are used to having a bit more space. Experts warn that the crowded conditions create a risk of stampedes; last year, about 60 young walruses were fatally trampled. And in the near future, the loss of their summer habitat is likely to become even more pronounced. "The ice-free period in the Chukchi Sea is currently about a month long," the USGS explained. "However, global climate models suggest the ice-free period could become as long as 4 or 5 months by century's end if rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.
It's also, of course, a bad situation for humans, in that the melting Arctic sea ice is an amplified indication of climate change; the stranded walruses, an early symbol of the dramatic circumstances we will all increasingly face.
“The sharp decline of Arctic sea ice over the last decade is leading to major changes for wildlife and communities alike," noted Margaret Williams, the managing director of U.S. Arctic programs for the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement. "The Arctic is experiencing the brunt of climate change like no other region, warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet."
But if the early date at which the walruses are gathering ashore is ominous, their timing is also fortuitous. On Monday, President Obama will arrive in Alaska, "the frontlines of our fight against climate change," for a three-day tour. “In Alaska, glaciers are melting,” Obama said in a video previewing the trip. “The hunting and fishing upon which generations have depended for their way of life and for their jobs are being threatened. Storm surges once held at bay now endanger entire villages. As Alaskan permafrost melts, some homes are even sinking into the ground. The state’s God-given natural treasures are all at risk.” He can add the imperiled walruses as yet another wake-up call.