Melting Ice Causes Mass Walrus Migration

[img_assist|nid=193697|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=399|height=265]By: Nick Engelfried 

September 15, 2010

Between ten and twenty thousand walruses have gathered on Alaska’s eastern shore, after a migration event that researchers say is the first of its kind.  Melting ice flows are thought to have forced walruses to abandon their usual habitat on the ice and flock to land in large numbers.  It’s an ominous sign of how global warming is likely to affect this charismatic marine mammal in years to come.

Though most are not as well known as the polar bear, dozens of arctic species are threatened by melting polar ice caps and other effects of global warming.  Many face the imminent threat of extinction unless major world economies curb their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases very soon.  Scientists predict the walrus is just one of many species that could go extinct by the end of the century unless decisive action is taken to preserve their habitat.

While walruses are capable of getting around on land, the terrestrial environment poses risks not encountered on ice flows far out to sea.  Last year summer, when hundreds of walruses came ashore in Alaska, over a hundred juvenile walruses were accidentally trampled to death after the heard was spooked by some type of disturbance.  Such events are more likely to occur on land than on remote ice flows, and conservationists worry this year’s gathering of thousands of walruses could especially at risk.

Locals from the Alaskan town of Point Lay had already spotted the enormous walrus heard by the time scientists with the US Geologic Survey arrived to attempt to figure out the cause of the migration.  It’s a truly unique event: though previous reports exist of walruses coming ashore in Russia in such large numbers, in Alaska past migrations onto land have always been considerably smaller.  Though all factors involved in the migration can never be known with certainty, scientists believe global warming and the melting of Arctic ice was likely the predominant cause.

As human activities continue to warm the climate, walruses and other Arctic wildlife can be expected to continue to suffer.  Meanwhile, groups like the US-based Center for Biological Diversity warn opening new areas in Alaska to oil and gas development further threatens remaining wildlife habitat.  Along with other leading environmental organizations, the Center has urged reigning in oil exploration and reducing global greenhouse emissions as the most effective way to save the walrus and countless other species affected by global warming. 

Photo credit: Polar Cruises

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