Huge Walrus Huddles and the Climate Change Connection    

What do you call a group of 35,000 walruses on a beach in Alaska? A huddle, herd or pod, if you’re a biologist. The set up for a bad joke, if you’re a comedian. Or also a sign of how climate change could be affecting animal behavior in the Arctic region.

Image credit: Corey Arrardo/NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML

On Tuesday, NOAA scientists flying over northern Alaska spotted the huge walrus huddle on the shores of the Chukchi Sea. For comparison, about 31,000 people attended an average Baltimore Orioles game this year.

Mass gatherings of walruses are becoming a more common sight in the Arctic, and some scientists are pointing to rapidly dwindling sea ice due to climate change as the main driver. Walruses normally rely on sea ice to take a breather from diving for shrimp. But with ice disappearing earlier in the summer and receding further, that leaves walruses with no place to take a break save coming onshore.

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U.S. Geological Survey scientists have observed large “haul outs” (yes, that’s another biologist term) of walruses in 6 of the last 8 years. Similarly large haul outs have been observed in Russia over the past decade.

With sea ice expected to continue its decline, walrus behavior could also continue to change and affect their ability to survive in the harsh Arctic environment. And of course, the repercussions of receding ice extend well beyond the Arctic's boundaries, too.

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