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Walruses Come to Shore Off Coast of Alaska in Their Earliest Appearance Since Sea Ice Substantially Recedes

This is the earliest date that large numbers of walruses have been confirmed on shore at Point Lay

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Walruses, Alaska, Sea
FILE - An estimated 35,000 Pacific walruses are pictured hauled out on a beach near the village of Point Lay, Alaska, 700 miles northwest of Anchorage, in this Sept. 2014 handout photo. (NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML). VOA

Thousands of Pacific walruses have come to shore off the northwest coast of Alaska in their earliest appearance since sea ice has substantially receded.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage received a report that several thousand walruses were gathered Tuesday on the barrier island off the coast of Point Lay, a Chukchi Sea village of 215 about 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) northwest of Anchorage, spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros said.

”This is the earliest date that large numbers of walruses have been confirmed on shore at Point Lay,” she said in an email response to questions, and the first time a herd has been seen as early as July.

Sea ice along northern Alaska disappeared far earlier than normal this spring as a result of exceptionally warm ocean temperatures.

Walruses, Alaska, Sea
Thousands of Pacific walruses have come to shore off the northwest coast of Alaska in their earliest appearance since sea ice has substantially receded. Pixabay

Since 1981, an area more than double the size of Texas — 610,000 square miles (1.58 million square kilometers) — has become unavailable to Arctic marine mammals by summer’s end, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Mature male walruses spent summers in the Bering Sea. Females and their young migrate north in spring, following the ice edge as it recedes into the Chukchi Sea.

Sea ice allows immature walruses to rest as their mothers dive over the shallow continental shelf to eat clams and snails. However, when ice recedes beyond the shelf over water more than 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) deep, walruses are forced to beaches to rest in Alaska and Russia.

Federal biologists have documented herds as large as 40,000 animals in recent years.

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Young walruses are vulnerable when gathered in herds. The animals lie shoulder to shoulder. If startled by a polar bear, airplane or hunter, the herd stampedes into the safety of the ocean and young animals are crushed.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has notified the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, and barge companies and airlines serving Point Lay that walruses are in the area, Medeiros said. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the “take” of walrus, which includes disturbance from human activity.

Sea ice usually melts to its summer minimum sometime in September.

The federal government in 2008 listed polar bears as a threatened species because of diminished sea ice brought on by climate warming. The Center for Biological Diversity that year petitioned to do the same for walruses.

Walruses, Alaska, Sea
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage received a report that several thousand walruses were gathered Tuesday on the barrier island off the coast of Point Lay. Pixabay

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in October 2017 that walruses are adapting and no one has proven that they need sea ice for birthing, nursing and feeding.

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The Center for Biological Diversity sued to reverse that decision and the lawsuit is pending before a U.S. District Court judge in Anchorage. (VOA)

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Glaciers in Alaska Melting due to Climate Change

Disappearing Frontier: Alaska's Glaciers Retreating at Record Pace

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Alaska Glaciers
A sign marks where the end of the Exit glacier was in 2010 near tourists taking photos in the Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. VOA

Alaska will soon close a year that is shaping up as its hottest on record, with glaciers in the “Frontier State” melting at record or near-record levels, pouring waters into rising global seas, scientists said after taking fall measurements.

Lemon Creek Glacier in Juneau, where records go back to the 1940s, had its second consecutive year of record mass loss, with 3 meters erased from the surface, U.S. Geological Survey glaciologist Louis Sass told Reuters.

Melt went all the way up to the summit, said Sass, one of the experts who travel to benchmark glaciers to take measurements in the fall.

“That’s a really bad sign for a glacier,” he said, noting that high-altitude melt means there is no accumulation of snow to compact into ice and help offset lower-elevation losses.

At Wolverine Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage, loss was the second highest in a record that goes back to the 1960s. Sass said it failed to match the record set in 2004 only because so much of the glacier had already melted.

Chugach National Forest Alaska
Chugach National Forest ranger Megan Parsley holds photos showing this summer’s ice loss at the face of Portage Glacier, Alaska, U.S. VOA

“The lower part’s completely gone now,” he said.

Drastic melting was also reported at Kenai Fjords National Park, which former President Barack Obama once visited to call attention to climate change. There, Bear Glacier, a popular tourist spot, retreated by nearly a kilometer in just 11 months, according to August measurements by the National Park Service.

“It’s almost like you popped it and it started to deflate,” said Nate Lewis, a Seward-based wilderness guide who takes travelers into the new lake that has formed at the foot of the shrinking glacier.

Even one of the few Alaska glaciers that had been advancing, Taku just southeast of the city of Juneau, is now losing ice at a fast clip.

Particularly ominous is the high altitude at which Taku is melting, said Mauri Pelto, who heads the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. This year, the summer melt reached as high as 1,450 meters, 25 meters above the previous high-altitude record set just last year, he said.

Casting off chunks

Barack Obama Alaska
President Barack Obama views Bear Glacier on a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska. VOA

Now that it is retreating, Taku is expected to start casting off big ice chunks, increasing Alaska’s already significant contribution to rising sea levels, according to a study co-authored by Sass and Shad O’Neel, a glaciologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. The study is scheduled to be presented at the annual conference of the American Geologic Union next week in San Francisco.

Alaska recorded its warmest month ever in July and the trend has continued.

“Alaska is on pace to break their record for warmest year unless December is dramatically cooler than forecasted,” Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center, said in a Dec. 1 tweet.

Alaska’s glaciers account for far less than 1 percent of the world’s land ice. But their melt contributes roughly 7 percent of the water that is raising the world’s sea levels, according a 2018 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and co-authored by O’Neel.

There are also local impacts. Scientists say glacial melt affects salmon-spawning streams and harms marine fish and animal habitats. It is creating new lakes in the voids where ice used to be, and outburst floods from those lakes are happening more frequently, scientists say.

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Changes in the glaciers and the ecosystems they feed has been so fast that they are hard to track, said O’Neel at USGS, who measured the melt at Wolverine Glacier in September.

“Everything’s been pretty haywire lately.” (VOA)