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Once Again, Thousands of Walruses Have Been Forced Ashore in Alaska

When the animals can’t find sea ice to rest on, they haul themselves ashore in crowded masses

(Winfried Wisniewski/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Last year, around 40,000 walruses pulled themselves up on a beach at Point Lay in northwest Alaska. Photos of the walruses swept through social media as people worried for the walruses, who are gathered together not out of love for one another, but because ice loss means that there aren’t enough spots to give them rest between feeding excursions. And this year, it's happening again. 

A photographer surveying the area from the air first noted the walruses coming ashore this year on August 23, reports Suzanne Goldenberg for The Guardian. The concern is that the crowded animals will stampede, which caused the deaths of about 60 young walruses last year. 

“Walruses often flee haul-outs in response to the sight, sound, or odor of humans or machines. Walruses are particularly sensitive to changes in engine noise and are more likely to stampede off beaches when planes turn or fly low overhead,” Andrea Medeiros, a spokeswoman for the fish and wildlife service, says in an email to The Guardian. After noting that the walruses were ashore and hearing confirmation from local communities, pilots are keeping away from the animals.

Last year’s 'haul-out' was the biggest known of its kind in the U.S. Arctic. Such haul-outs are increasingly more common.  This year even the maximum extent of sea ice during the winter was a record low

Goldenberg writes:

Some scientists believe the Arctic could be entirely ice-free in the summer months by the 2030s – with profound effects for local indigenous communities that rely on the ice, as well as wildlife that depend on extreme conditions.

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