Plus, an interview with a walrus.
Thousands of Pacific walruses are storming the shore of a barrier island off Alaska.
They're not gathering for a party, a flash mob, or a SeaWorld audition (thank god). They're just kinda ... stuck. For now, anyway. One walrus spoke with us:
A natural part of pinniped (walruses, seals, and sea lions) life is a behavior known as "hauling out." That's when they hop out of the water onto ice or land for rest, mating, or birth; to avoid being devoured by predators; or even just to hang out.
But these enormous land haul-outs are a new phenomenon that started only in the last decade.
Right now, there are an estimated 5,000-6,000 walruses on shore near Point Lay, a largely Native village in northwestern Alaska. We have yet to see if the situation reaches the scale of last year's haul-out, when more than 35,000 walruses piled onto a nearby shore.
Why are so many walruses hauling out to land, and why is it a problem?
The changing climate is melting the ice sheets that the walruses would otherwise be chillin' on during the summer months.
Here's how walruses live: wake up, swim, scour the ocean floor for food, rest, and repeat. They also mate and have babies and stuff in between, but that's about it.
Walruses like shallow water because they can't swim for long, and shallow waters mean shorter trips at mealtime. According to researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (video below), that's exactly what draws them to this part of the ocean:
"Most of the world's ocean is 10,000 feet deep. Beneath the Chuchki Sea is an immense continental shelf that is only 150 feet deep. This vast shallow sea is extremely rich in the clams and worms so vital to the walrus."
But rising temperatures are causing their summer homes to retreat into the deeper waters of the north earlier in the year, leading to these massive haul-outs.
Unfortunately for walruses, life on land ain't easy.
They have to swim farther and/or deeper for food. Their huge numbers can drain food supplies more quickly, cause turf battles, and increase the chances of disease outbreaks.
Haul-outs of this size also put walruses at constant threat of human disturbance. Ships, planes, and even jerks with cameras can trigger stampedes that put calves at risk of injury or death.
Officials have released a statement instructing media, tourists, and even locals to maintain their distance from the thousands of walruses crowding the shores. Our spokeswalrus agrees:
Walruses aren't the only ones who are worried about what's happening.
The walrus is an important part of native Alaskans' culture. They count on the walrus for food, clothing, boat building, tools, art, and a lot more. But rapid ice melt in the region, says the USGS, could create even more barriers to recovery:
"This longer season of open water has created the potential for greater human presence. Now, there is more opportunity for trans-ocean shipping, fishing, offshore oil and gas development, and tourism. Walrus and their calves must now contend with increased human presence, just as the security of their summer sea ice disappears."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thinks the walrus should be classified as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. But a decision won't be made until 2017, once researchers have done their digging. Hopefully, they won't be too late.
To learn more, check out this video by the U.S. Geological Survey: