Contributing Monkie Sarah Backhouse
Published on June 5, 2008
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—Of cabbages—and kings—And why the sea is boiling hot—And whether pigs have wings.” Although, Lewis Carroll’s famed Through the Looking-Glass may appear like hallucinogenic hurdy gurdy, there’s a line in there that’s most prophetic (and no, its not the shoes).
Although not quite “boiling hot,” the sea temperature is certainly rising causing the polar ice sheet to thin, and leaving its occupants including the walrus increasingly without a home. Although exact numbers aren’t known, “recent surveys by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and others put the number at roughly 190,000, with the vast majority of walruses in the Pacific half of the Arctic and sub-Arctic Circle.”
Carleton Ray of the University of Virginia, who has studied walruses since the 1950s, says: “The ice is melting three weeks earlier in the spring than it did 20 years ago, and it’s re-forming a month later in the fall.” As the polar ice cap retreats, opportunistic humans are moving in. The Interior Department recently gave the thumbs up for Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil off the northwest shore of Alaska, an area described as “prime walrus fishing ground.”
Neither deep sea divers nor long distance swimmers, walruses prefer to hunt in the shallow waters around the continental shelf, rarely descending below 100 – 200 feet. As Chad Jay of the Alaska Science Center’s walrus research program points out, the last decade has seen the ice sheet in Chukchi Sea steadily retreat, causing it to end over the deep Arctic water. The result? “Females and calves have been forced to abandon the ice in midsummer and follow the males to land. The voyage leaves them emaciated and easily panicked. With the slightest disturbance, the herd desperately heads back into the water, often trampling one another to death as they flee.” Dr. Jay adds, “Our Russian colleagues have observed thousands of calves killed in episodes of beachside mayhem.” Disturbing news indeed, something beyond even Carroll’s vivid imagination.