In the cold northern ocean between Alaska and Russia, freezing weather is possible during any month of the year. Throughout the long winter, temperatures in the Arctic are so cold that the surface of the ocean freezes for millions of square miles! Remarkably, animals like the Pacific walrus are adapted to live in this chilly climate, and they use sea ice as part of their habitat.
In recent summers, scientists and local residents have noticed less sea ice than normal in the Arctic. In September 2009, sea ice in the Chukchi Sea melted past the edge of the continental shelf. As a result, 3,500 walruses who usually rest in small groups on floating sea ice were forced to haul out together on land at Icy Cape.
Something startled the walrus while they were resting there. When startled, walrus will leave their haulout and rush into the water. As the huge group of walrus at Icy Cape rushed to the water, younger and smaller animals were trampled. Alaska SeaLife Center scientists and veterinarians were on the team that was sent to Icy Cape after the stampede. They found more than 130 young walrus dead on the beach. This dramatic scene sparked their interest in studying walrus.
Land-based haulouts in the Chukchi Sea were first seen in the United States less than ten years ago. A walrus's choice to haul out on land is directly linked to the availablity of sea ice. If ice is available within their range, they will haul out on it. If ice is not available, they will haul out on land. Scientists fear that, if we continue to have summers with less-than-normal sea ice, events like the stampede at Icy Cape will become more common.
Scientists at the Alaska SeaLife Center want to understand how walrus use these new land haulouts. They also want to learn how walrus will respond to disturbances while they are on land. The challenge is that walrus live in isolated, wild areas spread across a huge region. To study walrus, scientists must find a way to observe them closely without causing any disturbance events themselves. How will the scientists do it? Join our team as they come up with a plan.
To get started, let's learn more about the Icy Cape stampede by checking out the videos and news release below. You'll be amazed how crowded the walrus haulouts can get!
VIDEO: Icy Cape Stampede 2009
When large numbers of walrus haul out together on land, a disturbance event can mean disaster. This video, including images from the 2009 Icy Cape stampede, examines what can happen when walrus haul out on land in large groups. (1 minute)
Discovery News YOUTUBE REPORT
Discovery News posted this video in 2010, one year after the Icy Cape stampede. Their footage shows another very large group of walrus hauled out together along coastline in the Chukchi Sea. (2.5 minutes)
Now that we've observed the same event that sparked the interest of our Alaska SeaLife Center marine mammal research team, let's learn more about Pacific walrus and what they need to survive.