Even as the new IPCC Fifth Assessment Report concludes that anthropogenic influences have very likely contributed to unprecedented Arctic sea ice retreat since 1979, an estimated 10,000 walruses hauled out on land along Alaska’s north coast -- forced ashore by the disappearance of Arctic sea ice over their feeding areas. And as the walruses headed for shore, Congress headed for a shut down of the very agencies that address the threat climate change poses for wildlife and people – including their own constituents.
As Sea Ice Melts in a Warming Arctic,
Walruses Outpace Politicians
Above: An estimated 10,000 walruses in the water and hauled out near Point Lay, Alaska, on 27 September 2013. A close-up of part of the haulout is provided at the end of this post. The photos were taken from a flight of the U.S. Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) Project, funded by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Click here for high resolution copy. Source: Stan Churches, NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML.
On Friday 27 September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) approved in Stockholm, Sweden, the first of a series of volumes constituting its fifth assessment of climate change. It concluded that “over the past three decades, Arctic summer sea ice retreat was unprecedented,” and that “[a]nthropogenic influences have very likely contributed to Arctic sea ice loss since 1979.” The IPCC also warned that “[i]t is very likely that the Arctic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin.”
That same day, on the other side of the Arctic, federally funded observers aboard an aircraft photographed an estimated 10,000 walruses hauled out on land along Alaska’s north coast. The walruses were forced ashore by the disappearance of Artic sea ice over their preferred feeding areas. The observers were on a regularly scheduled flight of the U.S. Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) Project, funded by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (see NOAA Scientists Document New Walrus Haulout in Alaskan Arctic and NOAA’s Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals Photograph Walrus Haulout Site – Scientists Call Behavior New Phenomenon. The photos were posted on 30 September in a report on the flight [PDF].
Like the annual announcements of alarmingly low sea ice extent, the arduous annual exodus of walruses from favorable habitats on sea ice to crowded and inhospitable haul-outs on land are becoming a predictable periodic reminder that the planet is rapidly warming. Yet as the evidence of climate disruption emerges in the Arctic and elsewhere, members of Congress were preparing to shut down the very agencies that address the threat climate change poses for wildlife and people – including their own constituents.
Each year, the Arctic Sea ice follows a yearlong cycle. After the long, dark and cold winter, the ice reaches its maximum extent. Then the ice area shrinks through the Spring and Summer and into the Fall reaching a minimum in September. In animations showing this annual cycle over many years, the ice pulses back and forth over the region, expanding and contracting with the seasons. It is the heart of Arctic, the pulse that governs the cycle of life in the far north.
Female Pacific Walruses and their young calves follow the edge of the ice as it recedes north into the Chukchi Sea each summer. They rest on the ice and from there dive for food in the relatively shallow and productive waters of the continental shelf. Even when the sea ice extent reaches its minimum in the Fall, ice over their preferred feeding areas should remain, allowing them to stay safely offshore.
But rapid warming of the Arctic Ocean and lower atmosphere is disrupting the seasonal rhythm, particularly over the last decade. Arctic sea ice extent plummeted in 2007 to the lowest level ever recorded by satellites (i.e. since 1979). It dropped even lower to set a new record in 2012. Sea ice is more often receding far to the north over deeper waters that cannot sustain the walruses. When the last of the ice disappears from the shallow areas, the walruses have only one option: make the long, exhausting and sometimes perilous swim to land.
This year is no exception. By 10 September, an estimated 1,000 walruses had hauled out at Cape Kozhevnikov in Russia’s Chukotka region. On12 September up to 4,000 walruses had hauled out at one location near Point Lay, Alaska. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), sea ice extent reached its annual minimum – the sixth lowest on record -- the next day, on 13 September (see the NSIDC announcement). During the following week, remotely monitored tagged walruses previously offshore on the ice were hauling out onshore both in Russia and Alaska. By 27 September an estimated 10,000 walruses had crowded into the Point Lay haulout (see photos).
Above: Tagged walruses (yellow dots) are shown here along the Russian and U.S. coasts of the Chukchi Sea. Walruses between the two countries likely are swimming from Alaska to haul-outs in Russia. Source: USGS, Walrus radio-tracking in the Chukchi Sea 2013.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service [PDF] the walruses’ increased reliance on such terrestrial haulouts “will expose all individuals, but especially calves, juveniles, and females, to increased levels of stress from depletion of prey, increased energetic costs to obtain prey, trampling injuries and mortalities, and predation.”
The evidence, whether in the form of peer-reviewed science or millions of tons of walrus hauled out on land, is overwhelming. Yet the policy response is decidedly underwhelming. The Obama Administration efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to increase climate preparedness are encouraging, and were summarized in the draft U.S. Climate Action Report released for public review last week. But much more is needed, particularly to drive down greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020 with a coherent low-carbon energy strategy.
It also is evident that progress by the U.S. on climate change will require a change in climate in Congress, which has thus far been far less responsive to global warming than the walruses have been. As the walruses headed for shore, the Congress headed for a shut down.
Above: A close-up view of the estimated 10,000 walruses in the water and hauled out near Point Lay, Alaska, on 27 September 2013. Source: Stan Churches, NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML.