ANCHORAGE — An estimated 10,000 walruses unable to find sea ice over shallow Arctic Ocean water have come ashore on Alaska’s northwest coast.
Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration photographed walruses on Friday packed onto a beach on a barrier island near Point Lay, an Inupiat Eskimo village 300 miles southwest of Barrow and 700 miles northwest of Anchorage.
The walruses have been coming to shore since mid-September. The large herd was spotted during NOAA’s annual arctic marine mammal aerial survey, an effort conducted with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency that conducts offshore lease sales.
An estimated 2,000 to 4,000 walruses were photographed at the site Sept. 12. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that manages walruses, immediately took steps to prevent a stampede among the animals, which were packed shoulder to shoulder on the rocky coastline. The agency works with villages to keep people and airplanes a safe distance from herds.
Young animals are especially vulnerable to stampedes triggered by a polar bear, a human hunter, or a low-flying airplane. The carcasses of more than 130 mostly young walruses were counted after a stampede in September 2009 at Alaska’s Icy Cape.
The gathering of walruses on shore is a phenomenon that has accompanied the loss of summer sea ice as the climate has warmed.
Pacific walruses spend winters in the Bering Sea. Females give birth on sea ice and use ice as a diving platform to reach snails, clams, and worms on the shallow continental shelf.
As temperatures warm in summer, the edge of the sea ice recedes north. Females and their young ride the edge of the sea ice into the Chukchi Sea. However, in recent years, sea ice has receded north beyond continental shelf waters and into Arctic Ocean water 10,000 feet deep or more, where walrus cannot dive to the bottom.
Walruses in large numbers were first spotted on the US side of the Chukchi Sea in 2007.