What the Artic Walrus Tells Us About Global Warming

Conservation statusPhoto: Captain Budd Christman, NOAA Corps

Will walruses be able to survive with less Russian Arctic sea ice? Maybe, but there will be less of these animals, clearly. Researchers have even indicated that there will not be any of the sea ice by the year 2080. For the walruses, this possibly means discovering other suitable environments to survive in.

Changes in ice between 1990-1999Photo: James W. Williams, Claire Parkinson (NASA/GSFC)

The Decline of Seasonal Sea Ice
Seasonal variation and long-term decrease of arctic sea ice extentPhoto: Dominiklenne

Plot of (probably best estimate of) development of arctic sea ice volume between 1979 and 2010 as determined by the numerical model PIOMASPhoto: Dominiklenne

Across the Artic Ocean, the ice shows itself as a gleaming cap that throws back a large amount of the light. Just like any other animal, walruses require time and a place to rest after floating around and diving as deep as 200 feet toward the sea floor in the water to feed.

To find food, the perceptive bristles on the walrus’s faces enable the animals to find their quarry. The Arctic sea ice that the animals lie on while resting must be dense enough to maintain the heaviness of their bodies. Even the waters the walruses scavenge in to feed must meet certain requirements in order for them to find food. The depth of the water must be enough to permit the animals to find food.

Walrus using its tusks to hang on the edge of a breathing hole in the ice near St. Lawrence island, Bering SeaPhoto: Eliezg

Domino Effect

Not only are the adult walruses being affected, but so are their young. Without the ice shelves, there won’t be a place for them while their mothers capture food. Walrus calves are not able to go after food like adults, nor can they eat it. The animals need milk from their mothers for the first two years of their lives. Back in 2004, walrus calves were spotted making their way in the Canadian Basin. The animals were in really deep water and could have died by drowning or more likely by starvation.

Vibrissae of captive walrusPhoto: Megapixie

The species most affected are the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) and the Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) because the animals have limited diving ability. The former species is found in northeast Russia and Alaska; the latter in the Russian Arctic, the Canadian Arctic, Svalbard and Greenland.

Walrus colonyPhoto: Maksim

What Can Be Done?

The surrounding water warms as the sea ice melts resulting in a warmer atmosphere above it. This isn’t just low-level warming; it is concentrated heating. Greenhouse gases housed in the frozen sea ice will be freed as the ice continues to melt resulting in a twofold problem. It is now a global problem and requires global solutions.

An alternative habitat is urgently needed to aid in the survival of the walruses. A natural reservoir would be ideal for the animals to retreat to. Even though the initial conditions of the Kyoto Protocol were supposed to end in 2013, there is dire need for world authorities to contemplate and act upon a valid solution to this problem.

Young male Pacific walruses on Cape Pierce in AlaskaPhoto: Pfinge

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT