Life in a Climate Crisis
The Latin name for the walrus genus, Odobenus means “tooth-walking seahorse.” The name makes sense as the animals use their long, ivory tusks to haul out onto ice, keep breathing holes open, hunt for food, and to defend themselves. A male walrus can weigh up to 4000 pounds, so hauling out takes a lot of effort. Part of that weight is blubber, which serves as insulation and helps them story energy. There are both Pacific and Atlantic walruses.
Pacific walruses range across the waters of the continental shelf of the northern Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea. Their preferred foods are clams and other molluscs, worms, soft-shell clams, shrimp, and sea cucumbers. Those iconic whiskers (vibrissae) help them find food on the sea floor.
The walruses haul-out onto ice for rest, breeding, giving birth, nursing their young, and also for shelter from storms and predators. The ice needs to support their tremendous weight and provide easy access to food.
The Cold Truth
Because of the walrus’s dependence on ice, the greatest threat to walruses is the loss of ice due to climate change. 2023 was the sixth-warmest year in the Arctic since reliable records began in 1900, and the 2023 summer was the region’s warmest on record. Summer Arctic ice is shrinking at a rate of 12.6 percent per decade. A 2022 report predicted that there will be no summer ice left in the Arctic by 2050.
Food Sources Too Distant
Shrinking ice forces Pacific walruses to rest on land, far from their ocean feeding grounds. This increases the distance they have to travel and the calories they expend to feed. Also, these areas on land can be overcrowded, which can be deadly for calves when a stampede occurs. Six hundred walruses died in the 2020 haul-out, a record to match the year before.
To make matters worse, as the Artic becomes more ice free, the new open ocean will have more shipping, industry, tourism, and noise where the walruses swim and haul-out, causing disturbances and possibly stampedes. The potential also exists for oil spills associated with increased shipping and oil production on both the U.S. and Russian sides of the Pacific walrus’s summer range.
Too Fast to Adapt
What does this mean for the future of walruses? As USGS scientists write, “Adaptation takes time, and it took these species at least several hundred thousand years to adapt to their environmental conditions. Current environmental changes are happening far faster than these species can naturally adapt.”
Petitioning for Endangerment Status
Last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that summer sea ice would be lost even if warming peaked at 1.6 degrees above the preindustrial average. The world is currently on track for 2.8 degrees of warming by 2100. For this reason environmental groups have petitioned to list the Pacific walrus as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act because, “Endangered Species Act protection would require the federal government to designate critical habitat and mandate that it consider the threats and harms of federal approvals of oil and gas development and other greenhouse gas-emitting activities on the species. Additionally, protections under the Act would not interfere with subsistence uses.”
We can all do our part to slow climate change by acting to help our communities, states and the country reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
You can help walrus conservation by counting them from space.
Watch this movie about a Haulout,. Warning: It’s Tough to Watch!