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Shrinking sea ice forces Alaskan walruses inland

Last year, some 40,000 walruses were documented rushing the shores of Point Lay, Alaska.

By
Brooks Hays
Walruses gather onshore in 2013. Photo by USGS
Walruses gather onshore in 2013. Photo by USGS

POINT LAY, Alaska, Aug. 28 (UPI) -- Each summer, more and more Arctic sea ice disappears. On the north coast of Alaska, the global warming-induced phenomenon is leaving walruses without traditional dry docks, forcing them to take to land when it's time to get out of the water.

Researchers with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been tracking ice loss and walrus behavior over the past several years. In all but two years since 2007, scientists have witnessed hoards of walruses packing both Alaskan and Russian beaches during what's known as the "haul out."

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Most recently, the sea mammals can be seen huddling on the beaches of Point Lay, Alaska.

Prior to 2007, Pacific walruses preferred a summer resting area known as the Hanna Shoal region. Here, the ice of the Chukchi Sea, between Russia and Alaska, remained solid year-round -- even in summer when sea ice elsewhere had melted.

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But now, by late summer, even the sea ice of Hanna Shoal is gone, and the mammals are forced ashore until the ice begins to reform in October.

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Last year, nearly 40,000 walruses were documented rushing the shores of Point Lay, Alaska.

"Walruses often flee haulouts in response to the sight, sound, or odor of humans or machines," Andrea Medeiros, a spokeswoman for FWS, told The Guardian in an email. "Walruses are particularly sensitive to changes in engine noise and are more likely to stampede off beaches when planes turn or fly low overhead."

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As the atmosphere continues to warm and ocean temperatures rise, inland haul-outs are likely to become increasingly routine.

"The ice-free period in the Chukchi Sea is currently about a month long, however, global climate models suggest the ice-free period could become as long as 4 or 5 months by century's end if rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated," USGS said in a recent press release on the phenomenon.

FWS is expected to share more information on the gathering walruses in the coming days.

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