© Michio Hoshino / Minden Pictures
Nobody wants to be in the way of a 3,700-pound walrus—including other walruses. But they don’t seem to have a choice now that climate change is clearly here. Social mammals, Pacific walruses congregate on land to breed each fall. But in recent years, scientists have noticed a disturbing trend: Walruses are heading to shore earlier in the season and gathering in unusually large numbers at fewer locations because of the loss of sea ice. This overcrowding is leading to increased incidences of tragic stampedes.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that 131 walruses in Alaska, mostly calves and yearlings, were trampled to death in 2009. That may not sound like many but, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, it’s a new phenomenon for Alaska. Reports out of Russia are even worse, where an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 walruses died in stampedes in 2007.
The Arctic Ocean is expected to be completely ice free in summer by the mid to late part of the century. But it’s in Congress—where a comprehensive climate change bill is long overdue—that we really need the dramatic sea change. Then walruses and other arctic species may have a shot at surviving into the next century.