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article imageWith no place to rest, 35,000 walrus gather on Alaska beach

By Karen Graham     Oct 1, 2014 in Environment
It can get very tiresome swimming around the Arctic Ocean without having any place to take a rest. And if you are a Pacific walrus, and spend your winters in the Bering Sea, it's essential that sea ice be present to use as a resting place.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was doing their annual marine mammal aerial survey on Saturday when surveyors spotted an unusual sight. An enormous group of walruses, estimated at over 35,000, had "hauled-out" of the ocean near Point Lay, Alaska and were resting on a beach 700 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska.
Point Lay is an Inupiat village on the Chukchi Sea, about 300 miles southwest of Barrow, Alaska. It is on the Arctic Ocean coast just above the Bering Sea. The walruses had gathered or "hauled-out" of the sea a few miles from the village. NOAA says that four days earlier, there had been approximately 1,500 walruses on the beach, and by Saturday, the numbers had increased dramatically.
The massive number of walruses seen in an aerial view on Saturday  Sept. 28  2014.
The massive number of walruses seen in an aerial view on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2014.
Screen grab
In 2013, during the annual marine mammal survey, NOAA scientists counted 10,000 walruses on a beach near Point Lay. In 2011, 30,000 walruses were counted in the same area, hauled out on a beach. NOAA officials say this phenomenon is fairly new, having begun in 2007. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been watching the walrus haul-outs for a number of years, and is also concerned.
"The massive concentration of walruses onshore, when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic," WWF's managing director Margaret Williams said in a statement. The WWF says that other large walrus haul-outs have been reported to the west of Alaska, on Russian shores.
Walruses are mammals, and unlike seals, they cannot swim indefinitely. They use their tusks to haul-out onto floating ice or rocks on the shorelines when they need to rest. The loss of sea ice has forced the walruses to come ashore in record numbers.
Another serious problem with the loss of sea ice is the impact on females and their offspring. The females give birth at sea and use the ice as platforms to dive for snails, clams and worms on the Continental Shelf, where it is shallow.
Normally, as the sea ice recedes during the summer months, the females and their young will hitch a ride on the ice as it recedes into the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait. In this region, diving on the Continental Shelf is perfect for the walrus. But in recent years, the ice has receded further north and well past the shallow waters of the shelf, into the Arctic Ocean, according to NOAA. Here the depths exceed two miles or more, far too deep for a walrus to dive.
“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," says Williams.
On September 22, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported the Arctic's sea ice extent had reached its minimum on Sept. 17. On that day the ice cover measured 5.02 million square kilometers, the sixth-lowest extent recorded since satellites began measuring sea ice in 1979. While this was above the lowest ice cover measured in 2012, it is still below the long-term average.
This image shows a NASA Blue Marble view of the Arctic on September 17  2014 when sea ice extent was...
This image shows a NASA Blue Marble view of the Arctic on September 17, 2014 when sea ice extent was at 5.02 million square kilometers (1.94 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day.
The NSIDC report and the evidence of the enormous walrus haul-outs come at the same time that NOAA is reporting that ocean surface temperatures across the North Pacific Ocean are registering 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal. "Not since records began has the region of the North Pacific Ocean been so warm for so long," the NOAA report says.
NOAA research surveys in the Gulf of Alaska this summer turned up ocean sunfish  also known as mola ...
NOAA research surveys in the Gulf of Alaska this summer turned up ocean sunfish, also known as mola, which are often associated with warmer waters.
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