(FAA blocks flights over stranded walruses in order to prevent panic. US Fish and Wildlife Service considers adding protection to walruses as endangered species after late summer stranding due to loss of sea ice.)
35,000 thousand. That’s the number of climate change refugees left stranded upon a thin strip of land along the northern coast of Alaska. The refugees, driven from their summer resting place along floating rafts of summer sea ice, have been forced to concentrate en mass for safety and foraging upon a near-ocean stretch of beach and simply wait for the sea ice’s return.
The ice they have previously used for their summer homes is simply gone. Yet one more casualty of human-driven climate change.
These refugees, of course, are walruses, members of a growing group of climate orphans who’ve lost homes and haunts due to a vicious and rapid changing of the geophysical world. All across the media this week, we’ve been witness to pictures of the mass stranding. But one wonders if we really fully understand the impact of what we are seeing — yet one more vulnerable inhabitant of the natural world now dislocated by climate change:
(Aerial photo of Walrus mass stranding. Image source — NOAA.)
The mass beaching is directly linked to devasting losses of Arctic sea ice ongoing since 2007. The sea ice serves as a kind of summer shelter for Walruses, especially for nursing pups and mothers who use the ice floating over shallow water for both a resting place and a feeding platform.
But now, the new abnormal is that walruses are stranded. The sea ice is too far off shore for it to be useful to them. So they collect in a disease amplifying huddle, rapidly stripping resources along a thin swath of shore. A fearful and vulnerable concentration of animals facing an uncertain future as brown bears prowl threateningly about them. A present in which infant walruses are vulnerable to trampling by the larger adults. A new world starkly devoid of the gentle gray whales with whom they once shared these shallow waters. The whales went on to the edge of the ice — a place now too remote for the walruses to follow.
During six of the last eight years, we’ve witnessed such events. Masses of walruses along shore that are 80 fold larger than during similar periods just 30 years ago.
(Arctic Sea Ice Extent as measured by the National Snow and Ice Data Center for the six lowest years on record including 2014. Record lowest extent occurred during 2012 [dotted green line]. Image source: NSIDC.)
And this year the sea ice retreated far into the Beaufort, well out of even the reach of strong swimmers like walruses. A sea ice extent for the entire Arctic was sixth lowest in the record. Part of an ongoing and brutal trend that, if it continues, will strip the late summer Arctic of all sea ice during the time-frame of 2017 to 2035. A decline that has implications for all living creatures — not just the walruses. For as humans continue to force a hothouse state upon the Earth, the risk is that we all, like the walruses, become refugees living in ever more difficult and dangerous environs.
(Hat Tip to Colorado Bob)