Point Lay, a beach in northwest Alaska, has been taken over by approximately 35,000 walruses, the AP reports. NOAA scientists first spotted the walruses on September 13, during an annual aerial Arctic survey. Those animals would normally be out on sea ice, but scientists think that the loss of that ice due to climate change has driven them onto the beach.
Here's AP with a bit of walrus life history and an explanation for the animals' appearance on the beach:
Females give birth on sea ice and use ice as a diving platform to reach snails, clams and worms on the shallow continental shelf.
Unlike seals, walrus cannot swim indefinitely and must rest. They use their tusks to "haul out," or pull themselves onto ice or rocks.
As temperatures warm in summer, the edge of the sea ice recedes north....In recent years, sea ice has receded north beyond shallow continental shelf waters and into Arctic Ocean water, where depths exceed 2 miles and walrus cannot dive to the bottom.
The beach is no vacation for the walruses, however. Without easy access to the sea, the walruses can break into stampedes—caused by a marauding polar bear, a human or a low-flying plane—and squash young walruses, AP writes. So far, around 50 dead animals have been spotted from the sky, and NOAA plans to send in scientists to remove the bodies and determine the cause of death.
This isn't the first time walruses have gathered in such numbers or that stampedes have occurred. As AP reports, large walrus assemblies also formed in 2007, 2009 and 2011. Groups have also been spotted on the other side of the Chukchi Sea, in Russia.
Such gatherings will likely become routine for walruses in the coming years. As Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund's Arctic program told the AP: "The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic, and that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice and also to take action to address the root causes of climate change."