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Arctic Highlights Threats From Climate Change

DRAMATIC FOOTAGE OF WALRUSES IN ALASKA & RUSSIA

Retreating Sea Ice Forces Walruses Ashore, with Deadly Consequences for Calves

Anchorage, Alaska, October 1, 2009 – World Wildlife Fund has obtained high definition footage along the Arctic shorelines of Russia and Alaska showing the dramatic impact climate change is having on walruses.  Earlier today, an investigative team led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued preliminary findings explaining the mass death of young walrus calves that is captured on the WWF footage. 


The Alaska footage shows some of the more than 100 walrus carcasses that were spotted on September 14 by US Geological Survey (USGS) researchers flying near Icy Cape, southwest of Barrow, Alaska. Days prior to that sighting, a massive heard of walruses was seen congregated on the shore.  According to the preliminary report released today by the FWS team, which included USGS, the Alaska SeaLife Center and the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, a total of 131 carcasses, mostly calves and yearlings, were found.  Their conclusion was that “the cause of death was consistent with trampling by other walruses.”

“With the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice due to climate change, walruses are losing their habitats and are being forced to congregate on land in massive numbers, often in the thousands” said Geoff York, WWF’s lead Arctic species biologist.  “This is a very dangerous situation as it can lead to stampedes and the trampling of walruses.  As is evidenced by the Icy Cape situation, young walruses are particularly vulnerable.”  


In recent years, as Arctic sea ice  has receded far from the Russian and Alaskan coasts,  walruses – including many females and their calves – have been forced to take refuge on  land, congregating in  large numbers at “haul outs” along the coasts. These mass congregations can lead to violent stampedes, which, as is evidenced from the Icy Cape situation, are particularly dangerous to young walrus calves.  Scientists also report a recent rise in the number of orphaned calves at sea after becoming separated from their mothers.

“It is clear: were it not for the dramatic decline in the sea ice, the young walruses at Icy Cape most likely would be alive on the ice and not dead on a beach,” said York.


Just last month, York observed an estimated 20,000 walruses congregated on the shore of Russia’s Cape Schmidt during the “Northeast Passage” expedition, which was supported by WWF and others.  [Note: WWF footage from Cape Schmidt includes a walrus stampede.]

“As the sea ice retreats further out into the deep Arctic Ocean, walruses are unable to find food and are therefore coming ashore in huge numbers and in places they hadn’t been before,” York said.  “Once on shore, the walruses are limited in how far out they can forage, especially females and young.  If 20,000 walruses are all trying to find something to eat in one area, it won’t be long before the food runs out.” 

York noted that large concentrations of walruses on land can also attract polar bears and lead to increased human-bear conflict.  WWF is working with local communities across the Arctic coast to mitigate such conflicts and share information with communities on how to deal with the significantly increasing numbers of walruses and polar bears on land. 

“These alarming conditions do not just raise concerns about the fate of iconic species such as walruses and polar bears—our own future is at stake,” says York.  “The planet is changing in dangerous and unpredictable ways and the longer we wait to address the climate crisis the costlier it will be. It is critical that the Senate pass a climate bill this year, a critical step toward reaching a global agreement in Copenhagen.”

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