Image: Walruses on beach
U.S. Geological Survey via AP
These walruses spotted on Sept. 7 near Point Lay, Alaska, are among the tens of thousands that have fled to shore in recent weeks.
updated 9/13/2010 5:57:36 PM ET 2010-09-13T21:57:36

Tens of thousands of walruses have come ashore in northwest Alaska because the sea ice they normally rest on has melted.

U.S. government scientists say this massive move to shore by walruses is unusual in the United States. But it has happened at least twice before, in 2007 and 2009. In those years Arctic sea ice also was at or near record low levels.

Image: Biologist observes tagged walrus
U.S. Geological Survey via AP
Wildlife biologist Tony Fischbach observes a tagged walrus near Point Lay, Alaska, on Sept. 7.

The walruses "stretch out for one mile or more. This is just packed shoulder-to-shoulder," U.S. Geological Survey biologist Anthony Fischbach said in a telephone interview from Alaska. He estimated their number at tens of thousands.

Scientists with two federal agencies are most concerned about the one-ton female walruses stampeding and crushing each other and their smaller calves near Point Lay, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to change airplane flight patterns to avoid spooking the animals. Officials have also asked locals to be judicious about hunting, said agency spokesman Bruce Woods.

The federal government is in a year-long process to determine if walruses should be put on the endangered species list.

Fischbach said scientists do not know how long the walrus camp-out will last, but there should be enough food for all of them.

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During normal summers, the males go off to play in the Bering Sea, while the females raise their young in the Chukchi. The females rest on sea ice and dive from it to the sea floor for clams and worms.

"When they no longer have a place to rest, they need to go some place and it's a long commute," Fischbach said. "This is directly related to the lack of sea ice."

Loss of sea ice in the Chukchi this summer has surprised scientists because last winter lots of old established sea ice floated into the region, said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. But that has disappeared.

Although last year was a slight improvement over previous years, Serreze says there's been a long-term decline that he blames on global warming.

"We'll likely see more summers like this," he said. "There is no sign of Arctic recovery."

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Video: Without sea ice, walruses struggle to adapt

  1. Transcript of: Without sea ice, walruses struggle to adapt

    ANN CURRY, co-host: Now to an extraordinary wildlife event taking place in northwest Alaska . Tens of thousands of Pacific walrus have crowded onto a beach near a remote village and biologists think it is because the sea ice melted early, leaving the animals no other place to rest. NBC 's Lee Cowan is in Point Lay , Alaska , with more on this story. Lee , good morning.

    LEE COWAN reporting: Good morning, Ann. We're about 300 miles above the Arctic Circle this morning, and this is where the walruses gathered, some 20,000 of them, at one point over the course of the summer. And, Ann , scientists are saying that this is a gathering that is so large and so unusual that scientists are now worried about the walrus' safety. It's the end of summer along the north slope of Alaska and in the tiny Inupiat village of Point Lay they wait for the ice to return. The tundra is usually already frozen by now with snow on the ground and slush ice forming across the Chukchi Sea . But instead, children are playing in the lagoon barefoot, innocently oblivious to what it all may mean.

    Mr. LEO FERRARA: We always thought the Arctic would be cold, but scientists tell us that there's global warming going on.

    COWAN: Do you believe them?

    Mr. FERRARA: Yeah, I believe them.

    COWAN: Leo Ferrara is the tribal president here; doesn't mind that the bone-chilling 80 below winter temperatures are taking their time getting here. But he's worried about the village's most recent residents who need the ice to survive. Oh, I can see them in the water. There you go. The Pacific walrus, who normally rests on ice sheets floating out in the sea, have instead hauled out by the thousands at Point Lay to nap, unable to find refuge even on a small piece of sea ice that scientists say most of it has melted early.

    Mr. MARK SERREZE (National Snow Ice Data Center): What this is telling us is that there is a continuing pattern of sea ice loss in the Arctic . We may be looking at summers with no sea ice at all, or little to speak of in 20 or perhaps 30 years.

    COWAN: In fact, a new report out this month shows it's the third lowest Arctic sea levels in over 30 years. Walruses need that ice to rest on in between feedings. Much like the polar bear , they can't swim forever.

    Mr. ANTHONY FISCHBACH (US Geological Survey): We suspect it's going to cost walrus more to make a living when they have to commute from a coastal resting spot out to the foraging grounds than what it would cost them simply to roll of the ice and feed directly beneath them.

    COWAN: But that's not the only worry. With upwards of 20,000 crammed so tightly together, easily startled mothers can often stampede, crushing newborn calves as they hurtle toward the water to safety.

    Mr. BILL TRACEY: Anything can spook them from a polar bear , brown bear , a dog, a man, a boat going by, an airplane going over.

    COWAN: Bill Tracey is Point Lay 's fire chief. Last year, he says not far away, more than 100 walruses trampled each other to death. So until the ice comes back, strict limits are now in place. This is about as close as we can legally get to the walruses without disturbing them. From this point forward, the only people allowed in are researchers. There's even a no-fly zone over the beach, something residents here are happy to see.

    Ms. SOPHIE HENRY (Resident): What we have now we have to protect what's there. Because maybe in the next 10 years we won't have any.

    COWAN: A way of life for this village, a way of life for the walrus. Both trying to adapt to an Arctic changing faster than many expected.


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