Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Walruses - The New Canaries in The Coal Mine?

(Click photos for enlargement)

I previously have written a blog calling frogs the "new canaries in the coal mine". I still believe that frogs have been sounding the warning about the ever-worsening environmental catastrophe for decades. However, it would appear that walrus have joined the front lines in declaring the environment too toxic to exist in.

Walruses are hauled out Sept. 6/09 on the shore of Icy Cape about 140 southwest of Barrow. Photo courtesy Gary Friedrichsen/Noaa/ The Associated Press

Walruses are the latest victims of climate change. These sea mammals spend most of their days at seas; but, they cannot swim forever. Walruses need to haul-out (come onto land or sea ice) to rest, give birth, and socialize. The problem is that the packs of sea ice used by the walruses to haul-out are diminishing forcing them to crowd onto beaches. This is where the deaths happen.

Up to 200 dead walruses have been spotted on the shore of Chukchi Sea on Alaska's northwest coast. The story unfolds.

Mystery deaths: Some of the dead walruses found on the shore of Icy Cape in the Chukchi Sea about 140 south-west of Barrow, Alaska. Up to 200 carcasses were spotted by wildlife researchers a fortnight ago.

Federal wildlife researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey were on their way to a walrus-tagging project when they spotted 100 to 200 walrus carcasses near Icy Cape about 140 miles southwest of Barrow. The dead mammals when gathered together formed a pile approximately the size of the group in the first picture.

They report the dead walruses appeared to be mostly new calves or yearlings. However, neither the age of the dead animals nor the cause of death is known, said Bruce Woods, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"It's just too early to say until we can get someone on the ground," Woods said.

The investigators will have to be careful as walrus gatherings at haul-out sites have become larger and larger. When walrus panic they stampede. A man doesn't stand much of a chance caught in a walrus stampede - neither do the very young, the very old, the sick or the weak.

About 3,500 walruses were reported last week at the Icy Cape haul-out site. Remember Icy Cape is the area the dead walruses were found.

Due to a lack of packs of sea ice, these land-based haul-out areas are becoming overcrowded and tempers among the bull walruses can flare especially over mating rights. One of the leading causes of death in young, elderly or weakened animals is being crushed in a stampede.

With tempers short, lack of room and more animals competing for their share of the ever-diminishing space there really isn't an avenue of escape when a stampede occurs. Unfortunately, a herd can be startled by many things: a polar bear, human hunters or even a low-flying aeroplane.

Walruses are forced on to an Alaskan beach in this undated image from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Receding sea ice is being blamed for the death of hundreds of walruses on Arctic beaches.

The decreasing sea ice is being blamed for these walrus deaths. This is the second time in three years that walruses have congregated in such large numbers on the Alaskan shore rather than the edge of the sea ice. The sea ice drifts throughout the year moving north in the summer as temperatures rise and south in the fall and winter as temperatures cool.

Walrus historically have used sea ice as a platform for diving in the Bering and Chukchi seas for clams and other food on the ocean floor. These ice platforms are also used as resting areas between dives. In recent years, sea ice has receded far beyond the outer continental shelf. This forces walruses to choose between riding the ice over waters too deep to allow them to reach clams and other food source on the ocean floor; or, moving onto the already overcrowded shore.

The summer retreat of sea ice over the Arctic is shown in these images from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Arctic sea ice melted this summer to the third-smallest area on record this year, scientists have said.

USGS researchers began a tagging project using satellite transmitters to study foraging habits of walruses gathered on shore. Researchers fear animals congregating on shore, instead of the sea ice edge, could eventually exhaust food within swimming and diving range. This could lead to mass starvation leading to a crash in the population. And, as we all know, what impacts one species greatly has fall-out that affects other species.

The ship Arctic Sunrise reaches 'the ice bridge' in the Robeson channel, near the border between Greenland and Canada on September 14 this year. The Greenland icesheet has also begun melting at an alarming rate.

Environmental groups point to the dead walruses on shore as evidence that global warming is altering the Arctic and its environment. They are calling for measures to slow greenhouse gas emissions saying the changes to the environment are forcing major changes in wildlife behaviour.

The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list walruses as a threatened or endangered species. They cite the threats to the walrus from sea ice loss as being profound enough to cause the walrus population to decline; and, possibly, become extinct.

The agency has opened a 60-day public comment period. Spokeswoman Shaye Wolf said the walrus deaths were alarming.

"It provides another indicator that climate change is taking a brutal toll on the Arctic," she said.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado announced that Arctic sea ice for 2009 has shrunk to its third lowest level since satellite measurements began in 1979. The record low was set in 2007; and, ice last year (2008) melted to the second lowest level on record.

Is it just me or is there a trend here?

Final world: Walruses for years came ashore intermittently in Alaska during their fall southward migration; but, not so early and not in such numbers.

A short, heartwarming video showing the depth of emotion between a mother walrus and her calf. Be prepared to say "aaaahhhhhh" alot. Made by National Geographic, excellent footage. You will be putty in their flippers!

Via: JuneauEmpire.com and World News.

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