Global environmental challenges
Zoom! Pan! Swish! Take a look at a new movie of walruses crowding an Alaska beach — as you’ve never seen them before! Shot from 4,000 feet up in the air, the vast herd of walruses looks like a pile of brown gravel from a distance. (A far different view than the extreme close-up in the still photo at left, which was taken at a zoo in Belarus.)
As the camera in Alaska zooms in, you can see there are thousands of walruses scrambling ashore as the ice floes they normally use as hunting platforms melt away. The video was shot this month at Point Lay, Alaska, and distributed this week by the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s impossible to say how many are on this beach in this movie, but an Arctic scientist at World Wildlife Fund estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 of the tusked marine mammals have hauled themselves onto land in Alaska this year as summer Arctic sea ice shrank to its third-smallest recorded size.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer Vladimir Nikolsky (Zoo employee plays with a walrus during celebrations marking the zoo’s 23th birthday in Minsk, Belarus, August 11, 2007)
Video credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Talk about occupational hazards.Five Wildlife Conservation Society scientists studying the effects of global warming on shorebirds in Arctic Alaska had to be airlifted away from their remote camp late last month because of the appearance of another species whose life is changing as warming helps erode shores and melt sea ice. The researchers said a polar bear stuck on land forced them to evacuate their camp north of the remote Teshekpuk Lake on the Beaufort Sea –leaving food and tents behind. The carnivorous bears would normally be out on sea ice this time of year. But with recent warming the ice is miles from shore and polar bears, which were recently listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, are becoming increasingly trapped on land well away from their usual seal prey, said Dr. Steve Zack, who leads Arctic studies for WCS ”We had no idea how hungry they’d be and thus how ornery they’d be,” Zack, who made the decision for the researchers to evacuate even though they had been trained in bear safety, told me by his mobile phone from his current base near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. ”Where there’s one polar bear there are usually more,” he said, adding that government scientists have seen 32 polar bears stuck on shore this year, up from only one or two in previous years. In subsequent fly-overs over the abandoned camp, the team discovered that bears had eaten all of the food left by the researchers and destroyed two $500 tents. ”It was an ironic circumstance that studying climate change issues for our shorebirds put us in harm’s way with climate change effects on polar bears,” said Zack. Image by Mark Maftei, WCS
We hear a lot of grim news about how sea ice has been melting more than usual in recent summers in the Arctic, how glaciers from the Himalayas to the Andes are melting or how winter sports such as ice hockey in Canada may be under threat from global warming.