I missed this story when it broke on October 2. Most big papers covered it, under headlines more or less like Justin Moyer’s: “As sea ice melts amid global warming, 35,000 walruses crowd the shores of Alaska” (“Morning Mix,” washingtonpost.com).
I got wind of it 16 days late, via the Gail Collins New York Times column that the AJC reprints on Saturdays. Her headline was “Politicians ignore dire signs of climate change,” and while this record-breaking congregation of walruses was her hook, she was really after those politicians: Alaska Republican senate-hopeful Dan Sullivan obfuscating, “There is no concrete scientific consensus on the extent to which humans contribute to climate change”; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal calling climate change a “Trojan horse,” WeverTF that might mean; Mitch McConnell’s historic pronouncement on behalf of the entire thumb-up-your-ass crowd: “I am not a scientist.”
It’s a great column, but let’s get back to those walruses. For those of you who, like me, are a little hazy on marine mammals in distant climes, walruses are those comically bewhiskered, grotesquely betusked, pathetically beflippered, and enormously beblubbered animals you see lounging around on ice floes. True, in the frigid waters where they spend two-thirds of their time, whiskers, tusks, flippers, and fat come in handy—whiskers to find those kilos of bivalves on the ocean floor, for instance, and the icepick tusks to “haul out” onto the ice once the 3,000-pound beasts have stuffed themselves. They forage in the shallow waters of the continental shelf, following Arctic ice north as it melts in the summer and back south again as the water refreezes in winter.
In early summer, the females haul out onto the ice to deliver the 100-plus-pound calves that have been gestating for fifteen months. The young, though they can swim at birth, spend a year on the teat and may choose to tag along with their mothers for several more after that. Young males loaf the first half of their lives away, shirking their duty to the species until they’re 15 or so. Right away they go back to their old ways and have no truck with child-rearing—an arrangement the females seem to have no objection to. What with the “nature red in tooth and claw” business, walruses seem to have it pretty good. Found their niche, you might say, following the weather.
Which brings us back to the 35,000 that made the headlines. They’re part of the Pacific population of 200,000, by the way, which represents four-fifths of the world’s total. They’ve hauled out on Alaska’s extreme northwest coast, where the Chukchi Sea turns into the Arctic Ocean. Walruses routinely haul out on land, in small groups, mostly males, but the 35,000 are mostly female with their young. It’s hard to imagine that they like it there, with a dwindling food supply and crowded, messy quarters—not to mention the violent stampedes incited by polar bear attack, which cause so many fatalities among the young as to be a serious conservation concern.
Well, why don’t they leave? Because their ice has disappeared, and they’re waiting for cold weather to bring it back. It’s been happening more and more. Three years ago, an unheard-of crowd of 30,000 walruses hauled out on land for the same reason. I think I can predict with confidence that 2014’s claim on the record will be short-lived. As the U.S. Geological Survey reported plainly, “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 . . ., a condition that did not occur a decade ago.”
Isn’t shrinking sea ice visible? Isn’t it measurable? Isn’t it infactable? Yes, in fact, it is. National Geographic’s October 2 report on the walruses (“Biggest walrus gathering recorded as sea ice shrinks”) cites the official NASA estimate that Arctic sea ice has retreated by 12 percent per decade since the late 1070s. It also links to the NASA website for confirmation.
“The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic,” says Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program, “and that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice.”
Is it time? Say so at the polls in 10 days.