700 Walrus Seen Near Shell Oil Rigs in Arctic as Obama Visits Alaska
Thousands of Pacific walrus are coming ashore on the northwest Arctic coast of Alaska, repeating a migratory change for the walrus which U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists have called a clear effect of loss of Arctic Ocean sea ice on which the animals rely. As the walrus swim south from the preferred but now ice-free feeding ground, Hanna Shoal in the Chukchi Sea, many are passing close enough to the flotilla of Shell Oil ships on its drill site to be seen from the ships.
Kotzebue, AK, on edge of Arctic tundra wilderness, being visited by President Obama, this week. Photo credit: Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming
James MacCracken, supervisory wildlife biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in an Aug. 28 press conference call, "We are getting reports from Shell daily” of walrus near the ships and rigs and the talley so far is "700 walrus" seen by observers. When asked if all operations around the walrus by Shell are within the guidelines set by Interior Department regulation, MacCracken said, “Yes.” This is the first confirmation that protected sea mammals are swimming through the Burger oil leases which Shell just got permission to deep drill. Observers, paid by Shell, are required by Shell’s permit to perform drilling and other activities which might disturb or injure sea mammals. More information to come on this.
First aerial views of thousands of Pacific walrus hauling out Aug. 23 on Alaska Arctic shore. Small detail of telephoto image of 2015 haul out. Photo credit: Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming
The press conference was also the first direct acknowledgement by the U.S. agencies in charge of studying and protecting the mammals that a new haul out had begun—nearly a week after the event actually started and only three days before President Obama begins his tour of Alaska focusing on rapid climate change. Gary Braasch made the first photos of the haul out at about 7 p.m. on Aug. 23, after seeing on USGS maps of locations of geotagged walrus that several were stationary in the Point Lay area.
Thousands of Pacific walrus coming ashore in northwest Alaska as sea ice melts recedes from habitat. Photo credit: Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming
Fish and Wildlife Service officials confirmed at the press conference that they had no photos of their own so far of the haul out and Point Lay village President Leo Ferreira III said no one had been to the beach yet by boat, as of Friday. The walrus are subject to spooking and stampede by disturbance, which can trample and kill babies and young. In past years more than 100 have been found dead at other haul outs, apparently from stampedes. Marine Mammal Protection Act limits on approaching sea mammals are strict for this reason and the village is cooperating fully with this protection, Ferreira said at the press conference.
Part of thousands of Pacific walrus coming ashore, Aug. 23, northwest Alaska Arctic Ocean beach. Photo credit: Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming
Years of observations by scientists, mariners and natives document that until the sea ice began shrinking drastically in 2007, ice remained over shallow Chukchi sea areas where walrus spent the summers offshore. Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) have often left the water to rest on shore in many places across the Arctic shores of Russia and Alaska, but according to scientists it has most often been the males coming on land.
The recent huge mixed aggregations of the sea mammals, which grow up to 12-feet long and may weigh up to two tons with females about half that weight, pose danger to the young and smaller animals from crushing and the spread of disease. This danger is increased with longer times on land—which is why this year’s early haul out is significant, since in other haul out years the animals have stayed until late September. The herd then moves toward Russia.
Kotzebue, founded by natives on edge of tundra wilderness, modernizing with hospital, seawall. Photo credit: Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming
The huge sea mammals and young began coming up on this barrier island along Kasegaluk Lagoon about Aug.20, according to local natives. This is one of the earliest known summer haul outs of the walrus along the Alaska coast of the Chukchi Sea, according to wildlife biologists. Walrus coming up on Arctic beaches rather than staying on sea ice has occurred increasingly as Arctic sea ice melts faster and retreats far to the north of walrus feeding areas.
According to USGS scientists, walrus, especially females with young, prefer to haul out and rest on remnant sea ice over shallow feeding areas about 100 miles off Alaska in the Chukchi Sea. That ice has disappeared in seven of the past nine years, forcing the animals and their young to swim southeast toward the beaches of Northwest Alaska or to the Arctic Russian coast, to haul out. In some years, more than 30,000 animals have been on Alaska beaches, with some loss of life due to crowding and crushing and disease.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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