One of several Arctic species threatened by global warming, Pacific walrus have provided the world one of the most visible symbols of climate change. Whereas herds of walrus used to haul out on floating ice this time of year, in recent years they've chosen land instead. There just isn't enough ice around their habitat in Alaska anymore.
Walruses spend most of their lives at sea, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. They haul out on sea ice when they're not feeding, but in the absence of ice, they've resorted to hauling out on land in recent years. USGS is studying how this change is affecting the species.
"These dangerously large walrus haul-outs in the Chukchi Sea are a direct result of extreme Arctic sea ice melt caused by climate change," said Geoff York, Arctic wildlife biologist for World Wildlife Fund. "Unless carbon pollution is dramatically reduced, walruses, polar bears and even people in the Arctic will face a much more perilous future than they do already."
In the Aug. 17 photo below, at least 8,000 walrus can be seen near Point Lay, Alaska. Scientists dectected walruses beginning to haul out Aug. 7, three weeks earlier than last year, according to WWF. (Photo by Baine Thorn / NMML, AFSC, NMFS, NOAA.) Conditions in the Arctic may be heading for another record, with extreme melting so far continuing apace with the record set in 2007.
Young walruses are particularly vulnerable when adults haul out like this, because stampedes can lead to their deaths, according to WWF. It's just one of the ways declining ice affects this and other Arctic species. Beyond climate change, increased oil and gas drilling in the Arctic threatens the species, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which is criticizing the Obama Administration's "head-in-the-sand approach to looking at the impacts of drilling in the region."
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