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35000 Walrus Stranded in Alaska Due to Melting Arctic Ice

Oct 01, 2014 01:03 PM EDT

A band of 35,000 Pacific walrus are stranded in northwest Alaska, one of the last places they have to rest ashore, for melting Arctic ice is robbing them of their beach real estate, according to reports.

The NOAA photographed a record number of these giant animals clambering to the coast five miles north of Point Lay, an Inupiat Eskimo village 700 miles northwest of Anchorage.

This phenomenon, experts say, is the result of retreating Arctic sea ice, which has accelerated in recent years as the climate has warmed. This is bad news for Pacific walrus, who rely on sea ice for everything from birthing sites to diving platforms to reach food like snails, clams, and worms below. And unlike seals, walrus do need to stop and rest frequently, using their large tusks to pull themselves ashore.

"It's another remarkable sign of the dramatic environmental conditions changing as the result of sea ice loss," Margaret Williams, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund's Arctic program, told The Associated Press (AP).

Walrus have been seen gathering in large groups on the US side of the Chukchi Sea since 2007. The massive mammals returned in 2009, and again in 2011, when scientists counted some 30,000 of the animals along a half-mile stretch of beach near Point Lay.

Now, with an estimated 35,000 cramped in close quarters, wildlife conservationists are becoming concerned, for the animals are battling deadly stampedes as well as disappearing sea ice. About 50 carcasses, supposedly the result of being trampled to death, were seen on the beach last week, the AP reports.

Not to mention that the beaches are also distant from the best spots for feeding, normally at the edge of the continental shelf farther offshore.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, reductions in summer and fall sea ice have prompted the agency to consider granting Endangered Species Act protections to the Pacific walrus.

This summer, the Arctic sea ice shrank to its sixth-lowest level on record since satellite monitoring began in 1979.

"The Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice and also to take action to address the root causes of climate change," Williams told the AP.

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