The world has been riveted by the sight of 35,000 walruses piled on top of one another just outside the small Alaska Native community of Point Lay. They have been forced there by the lack of sea ice that would normally be floating above their open-sea feeding grounds this time of year, providing a place to rest between meals.
On September 17 the annual minimum for Arctic sea ice was at its sixth-lowest extent since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began keeping records. For walruses, this means they must swim to shore. On the one hand, experts say, it is not unusual for walruses to haul out, as it’s known, on land—they have done so in large numbers for years, especially in Russia. But the phenomenon has grown markedly in the past few years, according to environmental experts. And it’s not the safest place to be, especially for calves, which stand in danger of being trampled.
"We are witnessing a slow-motion catastrophe in the Arctic," said Lou Leonard, vice president for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement released when the sea ice extent was announced in mid-September. "As this ice dwindles, the Arctic will experience some of the most dramatic changes our generation has ever witnessed. This loss will impact the annual migration of wildlife through the region, threaten the long-term health of walrus and polar bear populations, and change the lives of those who rely on the Arctic ecosystem for their way of life.”
The 250-population Point Lay has been carefully protecting these walruses since they started arriving in 2007, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said. See ICTMN’s related story detailing their role.
Below, see video from 2011 and 2010 on what these animals are going through.