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Walruses Die; Global Warming Blamed

Walruses Die; Global Warming Blamed

By DAN JOLING Associated Press Writer

Dec 14th, 2007 | ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- In what some scientists see as another
alarming consequence of global warming, thousands of Pacific walruses above
the Arctic Circle were killed in stampedes earlier this year after the
disappearance of sea ice caused them to crowd onto the shoreline in
extraordinary numbers.

The deaths took place during the late summer and fall on the Russian side of
the Bering Strait, which separates Alaska from Russia. "It was a pretty
sobering year - tough on walruses," said Joel Garlach-Miller, a walrus
expert for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Unlike seals, walruses cannot swim indefinitely. The giant, tusked mammals
typically clamber onto the sea ice to rest, or haul themselves onto land for
just a few weeks at a time.

But ice disappeared in the Chukchi Sea this year because of warm summer
weather, ocean currents and persistent eastern winds, Garlach-Miller said.
As a result, walruses came ashore earlier and stayed longer, congregating in
extremely high numbers, with herds as big as 40,000 at Point Shmidt, a spot
that had not been used by walruses as a "haulout" for a century, scientists

Walruses are vulnerable to stampedes when they gather in such large numbers.
The appearance of a polar bear, a hunter or a low-flying airplane can send
them rushing to the water.

Sure enough, scientists received reports of hundreds and hundreds of
walruses dead of internal injuries suffered in stampedes. Many of the
youngest and weakest animals, mostly calves born in the spring, were

Biologist Anatoly Kochnev of Russia's Pacific Institute of Fisheries and
Oceanography estimated 3,000 to 4,000 walruses out of population of perhaps
200,000 died, or two or three times the usual number on shoreline haulouts.
He said the animals only started appearing on shore for extended periods in
the late 1990s, after the sea ice receded.

"The reason is the global warming," Kochnev said.

The reports match predictions of what might happen to walruses if the ice
receded, said wildlife biologist Tony Fischbach of the U.S. Geological

"We were surprised that this was happening so soon, and we were surprised at
the magnitude of the report," he said.

Scientists said the death of so many walruses - particularly calves - is
alarming in itself. But if the trend continues, and walruses no longer have
summer sea ice from which to dive for clams and snails, they could strip
coastal areas of food, and that could reduce their numbers even further. No
large-scale walrus die-offs were seen in Alaska during the same period,
apparently because the animals congregated in smaller groups on the American
side of the Bering Strait, with the biggest known herd at about 2,500.


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