Add this to the list of images that will come to define climate change in our time: tens of thousands of walruses with nowhere to rest, crowded together on shore as a last resort.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released photos of some 35,000 walruses gathered ashore near Point Lay, an Inuit village 700 miles north of Anchorage. The animals typically hang out on sea ice, which is rapidly declining in the summertime: the annual minimum, reach in mid-September, was the region's sixth-lowest on record. "Even with a relatively cool year, the ice is so much thinner than it used to be," explained NASA scientist Walter Meier. "It is more susceptible to melting."
As the ice melts, the convergence ashore of walruses is becoming something of a tradition. They were first spotted in 2007, and again in 2009; around 30,000 of them ended up on a nearby beach in 2011. This year's event, an NOAA expert told the Alaska Dispatch News, is one of the largest onshore gatherings of animals ever recorded in the region.
It's no party for the walruses. The beach isn't the best place for them to find food, and the smaller members of the herd are in danger of being crushed. Observers have already spotted about 50 carcasses, believed to have been trampled in a stampede. As sea ice cover continues to decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering granting the Pacific walrus endangered species protection.
“It’s another remarkable sign of the dramatic environmental conditions changing as the result of sea ice loss,” Margaret Williams, managing director of the WWF's Arctic program, told the Associated Press.
“The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic, and that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice and also to take action to address the root causes of climate change.”