September 14, 2010

Lack Of Sea Ice Sends Walruses Ashore In Alaska

Melting sea ice in the southern Arctic Ocean has caused tens of thousands of walruses to come ashore in northwest Alaska.

US federal scientists say the move to shore by these marine mammals is unusual for the United States- although this has happened at least twice before, in 2007 and 2009. In those years Arctic sea ice was also near record low levels.

U.S. Geological Survey biologist Anthony Fischbach told The Associated Press (AP) in a phone interview that the walruses "stretch out for one mile or more. This is just packed shoulder-to-shoulder."

Scientists are most concerned about the one-ton stampeding females potentially crushing one another and their smaller calves along the northwestern Alaskan shoreline on the Chukchi Sea.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to change local air flight patterns to avoid spooking the walruses. Officials have also asked local residents in Point Lay and the surrounding regions to be careful hunting, according to agency spokesman Bruce Woods.

The federal government have been debating over the past year whether to include walruses on the endangered species list.

Scientists do not know how long the walruses will stay onshore, but there should be enough food for all of them, said Fischbach.

While the females stay in the Chukchi Sea to raise young, the adult males swim off to the Bering Sea until the following breeding season arrives. Females normally rest on sea ice and dive down to the sea floor to find clams and worms.

When walruses no longer have a place to rest, "they need to go someplace and it's a long commute," said Fischbach, noting that the lack of sea ice has prompted them to come ashore.

Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, told AP that the loss of sea ice this year dumbfounded scientists because lots of established sea ice floated into the region last winter.

Serreze blames the decline of sea ice, which has been a problem in the past several years, on global warming.


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