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Largest number of walruses seen ashore in Alaska is sign of ‘tremendous change’

October 2, 2014 at 6:30 PM EST
Walruses are one of many animals who need Arctic sea ice. But when that ice melts, they must to go ashore to rest and find food. In Alaska, 35,000 walruses have been observed on one beach. Judy Woodruff speaks with Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund about the consequences of disappearing ice for animals and how humans are connected to the story.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: When it comes to animal pictures going viral on the Web, the homely walrus hasn’t been at the top of the list, but put 35,000 walruses together on a beach in Alaska, and that’s a different story.

These images, the largest gathering of Pacific walruses ever recorded, has indeed done just that. These walruses have been the stars of the Internet. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spotted them last weekend during its annual survey of marine mammals.

The location is near Point Lay, Alaska, on the shores of the Chukchi Sea. Scientists say a loss of sea ice is a big part of the reason the walruses are hauling out. That’s the term used to describe their moving on to land.

Margaret Williams is a managing director of the Arctic Program for the World Wildlife Fund, and she joins me now.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

MARGARET WILLIAMS, World Wildlife Fund: Hi, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So why are the walruses doing this? What’s going on?

MARGARET WILLIAMS: Well, walruses are one of the many species in the Arctic that are highly dependent on the Arctic sea ice.

So the mothers raise their calves on the sea ice. They use — these animals use the sea ice as a platform from which to dive to reach their food. Walruses like the eat clams and shellfish. And when the sea ice melts, as it is right now, they have to go somewhere to rest and to reach their food.

So they’re coming ashore in large numbers. And the sea ice is melting so rapidly. It’s melting earlier in the summer and later every — and forming later in the spring. So the Arctic sea ice is changing dramatically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how unusual is this? Has it ever happened before?

MARGARET WILLIAMS: This is the largest number of walruses we have seen in Alaska. It’s a sign of tremendous change. It’s a sign that Arctic wildlife distributions and life’s history patterns are actually changing pretty much before our eyes.

We have seen large haul-outs on the Russian coast. And World Wildlife Fund works closely with Russian scientists and communities. So they have told us about these large numbers on the Russian side. But this is first time these numbers have been seen in Alaska.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what do — so, in other words, they need sea ice for survival.

MARGARET WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what are the implications for the walrus, for other marine mammals, for humans, if there are any?

MARGARET WILLIAMS: Well, the humans are absolutely connected to the story of the walrus, because this is a story about climate change.

The walrus depend on that sea ice habitat, just as polar bears do, just as bowhead whales do. The Arctic is an incredible sea ice environment. And, as it changes, the Arctic Ocean is changing. And there is increasing evidence that changes in the sea ice are influencing the jet stream, which then has implications for weather patterns in the Lower 48 and really around the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What can be done about it, Margaret Williams? Is it — it seems like it’s so — such a remote area. Can humans do something specifically about these walruses?

MARGARET WILLIAMS: They absolutely can. And we’re so lucky to have fabulous scientists with NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out working with communities.

And communities have taken a great role in protecting the walruses while they’re on shore, both in Russia and Alaska. So, they’re trying to reduce disturbances while the walruses are ashore. Walruses are very skittish when they’re in these great numbers.

They can easily cause stampedes among their own members. Or if a polar bear comes or a noisy helicopter or aircraft goes above the walruses, they can easily get frightened and rush into the water. So communities are keeping disturbances low.
And that’s one of the key things.

Also, a key threat and the concern of World Wildlife Fund is the potential for offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean. We’re very concerned that right now there just simply is not the technology to contain an oil spill, if an oil spill were to happen in the Arctic Ocean.

And the Arctic Ocean is, again, key habitat for walruses, not only walruses, but fish, ringed seals, and that healthy ocean is so critical to so many people living around the Arctic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Williams with the World Wildlife Fund, we thank you.

MARGARET WILLIAMS: Thank you, Judy.

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