If Arctic Sea Ice Disappears… What Happens To The Walrus?

on Monday, May. 23rd

FrankD – a commentator on the Arctic Sea Ice Blog, posted the graph shown below – hypothesizing that no arctic sea ice will be left by 2030. We wanted to know what this means… and just how disastrous that prediction is for humans and animals.

One major change that scientists in Alaska have seen is that every summer, the sea ice disappears. The sea ice of the Arctic is still a mix of seasonal and permanent  ice. After the permanent ice eventually disappears in summer, it will be all seasonal ice, according to Dr. Peter McRoy at the International Arctic Research Center in Alaska. He said this change affects polar bears and populations.

“Polar bears can swim, but not hundreds of miles and every year now there are reports of dead polar bears that have drowned… The freezing of the ocean occurs later in the fall leaving the coast exposed to the effects of large storms. Erosion of the coast by storm sea waves has already resulted in the destruction of entire villages that were formerly protected by sea ice,” said McRoy.

Basically, animals that relied on constant platforms of sea ice will need to adapt to new habitats.  “Seals, walrus, and polar bears use sea ice as a refuge to escape the demands of constant swimming in the sea… The absence of a reliable sea ice platform means that these animals must use land for hauling out and denning. This would expose these animals to new predators and certainly lead to changes in these populations,” said McRoy.

The population of walruses in Alaska, and the region around the Bering Strait, effects one population directly: the native population of Siberian Yupiks that live on St. Lawrence Island in the villages of Gambell and Savoonga. The Yupiks are subsistence hunters that rely on the walrus for food, according to Gary Hufford, Regional Scientist for the National Weather Service in the Alaska Region.

In recent years, Hufford said the Yupik elders have approached local scientists for help because the walruses are moving in unpredictable ways.

According to Hufford, walruses actually seek out sea ice by shape – they prefer broken ice floes (flat free masses of sea ice) so that they can easily slip through into the water and feed on the bottom of the ocean.  Hufford has analyzed satellite images of sea ice since the 1980’s, and he’s noticed that broken sea ice floes are melting at a faster rate than other sea ice.

“Can the walrus adapt to another shape? Will they be forced to adapt?  This is what we’re concerned about,” said Hufford. Last April, Hufford and others formed the Sea Ice Walrus Outlook (SIWO) to give these hunters a better idea of how they can track the walrus as it adapts to sparse sea ice. “Every Friday we produce a report that says where the sea ice is and where is it going in a 10 day forecast,” said Hufford.

Hufford said if conditions keep getting worse, that the Fish and Wildlife Service might have to put restrictions on hunting animals like the walrus.

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