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Walruses are hauling out on land instead of ice because of climate-induced warming.

 

For Media: Walrus Haul Out, Point Lay, Alaska

Once again, an extreme retreat of Alaska’s summer sea ice has led large numbers of Pacific walruses to haul out on land to rest instead of resting on offshore ice.

Walruses Spill Over Beach Banks onto Tundra

Walruses spill over the beach banks onto the tundra in Sept 2013 after sea ice disappeared from their offshore foraging grounds and once the beach had become too crowded with other walruses.

The walruses are hauling out on land in a spectacle that has become all too common in six of the last eight years as a consequence of climate-induced warming. Summer sea ice is retreating far north of the shallow continental shelf waters of the Chukchi Sea in U.S. and Russian waters, a condition that did not occur a decade ago.  To keep up with their normal resting periods between feeding bouts to the seafloor, walruses have simply hauled out onto shore.

Hauling out refers to the behavior associated with seals and walruses of temporarily leaving the water for sites on land or ice. Watch a video that explains USGS research and the haul-out phenomenon.

Walrus Calf Looking out From the Group Near Pt Lay, AK

Walrus calf. Calves are more likely to be trampled in these massive land haul-outs.

The USGS is tracking walruses in the eastern Chukchi Sea with satellite radio-tags to better understand how sea-ice retreat is affecting these large pinnipeds. The resulting tracking data are not only helping researchers and managers alike better understand changing walrus movements, foraging areas, and use of sea ice habitats in the Chukchi Sea oil lease sale planning area, but they are also providing insights on changes in walrus activity levels during these minimum sea-ice conditions in the summer, which can affect their ability to store fat.

The population-level effects of these hauling out behavioral changes are not yet understood; however, USGS and other researchers do know that while onshore, young walruses are susceptible to mortality from trampling. Additionally, hauling out on shore and using nearshore feeding areas may be energetically less profitable than their preferred behavior of using the ice as a haulout platform on which to rest while remaining near rich feeding grounds.

Walrus Female And Pup On An Ice Floe

Walrus female and pup on an ice floe in June 2010.

 

 

 

Although the longer open water season in the Arctic is creating opportunities for shipping, tourism, energy production and other human activities in this remote region, it is also resulting in significant ecological changes. Data from these studies will provide resource managers with basic information on areas important for walruses, such as the Hanna Shoal region in the northeastern Chukchi Sea, as human activities in the Arctic increase. The areas of walrus foraging overlap with oil and gas lease blocks administered by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Useful links:

Full-Length USGS Video: Tracking Pacific Walrus: Expedition to the Shrinking Chukchi Sea Ice

USGS Alaska Science Center Walrus webpage

Press Release (September 2014): Research Shows Historic Decline in Pacific Walrus Population

Aerial video footage of 2010 haul out

Blog: Tracking Walrus: Expedition to the Shrinking Chukchi Sea

The Science Behind the 2011 Walrus Haul-Out FAQs

Podcast with USGS walrus researcher on changes in the ice-dominated ecosystems of the Arctic and effects on Pacific walruses

Other Related Press Releases:

11/14/2012 – USGS Study Tracks Pacific Walrus, Observes Effects of Arctic Sea Ice Loss on Behavior

9/13/2011 – New Video/Images of Walrus Haulout

8/16/2011 – USGS August 16, 2011 Pacific Walruses Studied as Sea Ice Melts

9/22/2010 –  USFWS September 22, 2010 North Slope Walrus Haul-out Update

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Page Last Modified: February 2, 2011