Climate Change: Thousands of Pacific Walruses Have Turned up in Alaska Ahead of Schedule After Record-breaking Temperatures

Thousands of Pacific walruses have been spotted on an island off the northwest coast of Alaska in what is their earliest appearance on the state's shores—something experts have put down to rapidly receding Arctic sea ice and unusually warm ocean temperatures.

Sea ice off northern Alaska usually reaches its summer minimum in September, but recent high temperatures in the region—which have seen records smashed across the state—have meant that the ice has disappeared much earlier than normal, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

The walruses were seen near the Iñupiaq village of Point Lay which is located on a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea, according to environment officials. This is the first time a herd has been seen in the area in the month of July.

"This is the earliest date that large numbers of walruses have been confirmed on shore at Point Lay," Andrea Medeiros, a spokeswoman for the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Anchorage, told AP.

Walruses spend most of their time on sea ice. However, global warming is reducing the amount of ice available for them to rest on, according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF.) When no ice is available, walruses congregate on shores in large groups known as "haulouts" to seek refuge.

In recent times, walruses are congregating in increasingly large haulouts—sometimes numbering up to 40,000 individuals—in places like Alaska and Russia.

"The formation of coastal haulouts along the Chukchi Sea coast in recent years is associated with the loss of sea ice habitat near offshore feeding grounds," a statement from the USFWS read. "The walruses typically begin to haul out approximately two weeks after sea ice recedes off the continental shelf. Sea ice provides protection from predators and easy access to feeding areas below. Walruses would normally rest on the sea ice in small groups and occasionally slip into the water to feed."

These haulouts can be dangerous because walruses are easily scared by predators, humans or vehicles—which can lead to stampedes as they rush to safety in the ocean, crushing younger members of the herd.

Furthermore, the journey from the receding sea ice to the shore—which can be more than 100 miles—can be tiring and perilous, particularly for young calves.

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Close up of a female walrus resting after entering a haulout. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Climate Change: Thousands of Pacific Walruses Have Turned up in Alaska Ahead of Schedule After Record-breaking Temperatures | Tech & Science