Walrus scarcity tied to global warming

August 26, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

WAINWRIGHT, Alaska -- The Arctic sea ice in northwestern Alaska is usually within 30 miles of Wainwright in August. Today it's more than 300 miles away, much farther than it has ever been.

Wainwright hunters have usually bagged more than 100 walruses by this time in the season. They've bagged fewer than 20 this year.

The ice left Wainwright so quickly in June -- a month earlier than usual -- that Oliver Peetook didn't have the chance to get a walrus. Like most Wainwright families, the Peetooks -- Oliver has four children -- usually fill the freezer with three or four of them, butchering the animals on the ice where they've been shot.

"We were worried," he said.

All over the world, experts are talking about global warming. In the village of 600 Inupiat, they're living it.

The ice capping the globe is vanishing at a record pace this summer, fueled partly by two weeks of heat beginning in late June when Kansas-sized chunks disappeared daily, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The Arctic ice sheet has shrunk to its smallest size in recorded history, based on measurements that go back 100 years, said data center scientist Ted Scambos. The disappearing ice has been especially dramatic above Siberia and Northwest Alaska.

In Wainwright earlier this month, word spread over the village VHF radio of about 20 walruses swimming nearby. They might have been part of a group gathered on shore not far from the village, which usually doesn't happen until fall, Peetook said.

"I guess they have no ice to go to so they are hauling out on the beach," he said.

Peetook grabbed his skiff, gun -- and a small seal harpoon rigged with a float, which he doesn't need during a normal ice hunt. The hunters shot four animals about five miles from home, he said.

He caught a young male, the first walrus he had ever shot while it was in the water.

The hunters tied the heavy animals to the boats and towed them to Wainwright. Adult walruses weigh more than a ton, so several men muscled the animals onto the beach for butchering.

"That's the first time I get some like that," Peetook said.

The walruses have probably abandoned the ice sheet for the year, said Tony Fischbach with the U.S. Geological Survey. Right now, the ice is sitting on top of at least 1,500 feet of water, far too deep for walruses to reach the sea floor to eat.

The vast stretches of open water endanger pups.

"Adult walrus can swim 400 nautical miles, but I doubt offspring can," Fischbach said.

Walruses, especially females, usually hunt from the ice, eating clams and other foods on the sea bottom as the ice moves over new feeding grounds.

There are more than 200,000 Pacific walruses, biologists estimate.

Satellite images of walruses tagged in June with tracking devices about 40 miles northwest of Barrow, Alaska, suggest they generally stayed in that area as long as possible.

Some clung to "tiny wisps of ice" into late July as the pack ice retreated. The wisps are probably gone by now, he said last week.

One -- an adult male -- headed west, possibly for shore haul-outs in Russia more than 400 miles away.

The walruses that showed up near Wainwright in June didn't stay around as long as usual, said Joseph Ahmaogak, the village mayor. The wind blew out the melting ice and the walruses were gone.

"[The wind] took the shore-fast ice and it blew out and it never looked back," he said.

Hunters caught fewer than 15 walruses then. They usually catch more than 100, he said.

For most of the 1990s, the ice edge in August was 30 miles or less from Wainwright, he said. Sometimes it still is, like last year.

But often now, it's more than 100 miles away, he said. This year it's the farthest away it has ever been.

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