Burnin' Blubber

As warmer summers melt the Arctic, Pacific walruses have to work a lot harder to reach their seafloor feasts.

Photo: USGS

Polar bears, snowy owls, seal pups, narwhals—the Arctic has lots of animals that are Pixar cute. No offense to the walrus, but it ain’t one of them.

This bellicose behemoth can outweigh a Honda CR-V. Its blubber rolls have blubber rolls, and the walrus sports a mustache not even Tom Selleck could pull off. Its most recognizable feature—a pair of three-foot ivory tusks—makes the bucktoothed beast one of the most dangerous creatures on sea ice.

Unfortunately, this homeliness means walruses are often on the short end of the conversation about climate change and its consequences. But make no mistake, the frumpy walrus is every bit as effed as its awww-inducing neighbors.

Walruses survive almost entirely on a diet of clams, snails, worms, and other seafloor invertebrates. Normally, this buffet lies just off the edge of the floating Arctic ice cap, about 150 feet down, a depth the diving pinnipeds are well equipped to reach. Indeed, walruses all across the shallow Chukchi Sea between Russia and Alaska spend their days gorging on a seafloor feast—that is, when they’re not hauling their girth out onto the ice to rest, escape predators, or nurse their young.

That daily routine is being put to the test, though, as the Arctic undergoes a dramatic shift, thanks to global climate change. 

“The ice is melting,” says Shawn Noren, a research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “This means that the edge of the summer sea ice is now over deeper and deeper water.” As the ice recedes farther north, away from the Chukchi and into the Arctic Ocean, the seafloor can drop by as much as 10,000 feet. Not even the most capable of walruses—Walrus Team Six, if you will—can dive that deep.

So, what’s a brute to do?

“We’re actually seeing them switch their behavior,” says Noren, who has been studying the animals at the behest of the U.S. Geological Survey. “Instead of hauling out onto the ice, they’re coming onto the land.”

And that’s a problem, for many reasons. For starters, we’re talking about some 35,000 walruses squatting on the same shoreline. That many pinnipeds put a massive strain on local food supplies, which forces the animals to forage further out to sea. In doing so, they expend more energy on swimming (fewer ice rafts for resting doesn’t help) and on thermoregulation (keeping warm in the cold water). Furthermore, as food becomes less available, to exploit new resources the animals must dive deeper, another stress with unknown costs to walrus health.

Both old and young are suffering. Walrus mothers bring their pups along on food runs, and the young are even more ill equipped to handle these new stressors. Noren says that the juveniles are still developing the cardiovascular systems that will one day allow them to swim, dive, and thermoregulate like an adult. “The pups aren’t built like marine mammals yet,” says Noren. “They’re built more like terrestrial animals.”

We’re really only just beginning to understand what effect climate change may have on the Arctic and the walruses that live there. In her work, for instance, Noren is trying to determine how much energy a walrus needs to survive, reproduce, and nurse its young, so she and other researchers can better calculate how environmental changes may affect them in the long term.

This is easier said than done, she says, because the animals are extremely difficult to study in the wild. For one thing, their habitat is hostile and remote. For another, “Walruses are really, really dangerous,” she says. When confronting a threat, an adult walrus has two basic responses: Throw all two tons of its weight into a jiggly but formidable charge, or flee into the water. The latter is problematic when there are thousands of animals sitting ass-to-ankles on a single beach.

“We’re getting a lot of trampled calves,” says Noren. “That’s why we can’t target-count them... We have to have the airplanes fly high so as not to scare the animals off the land. They’re startle-happy.” Noren says pilots from the oil and gas industry are far less thoughtful of the animals below.

But help may be on the way. After a 12-month inquiry, it appears the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will add the Pacific walrus to the Endangered Species List sometime next year. Among other things, it is hoped that the listing would limit how much survey fly-bys, shipping lanes, and oil and gas operations can encroach on walrus habitat.

The sea-ice problem, however, still looms large. For six of the past eight years, summer sea ice has been so scant that onshore walrus congregations have become the new norm. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the Arctic could see ice-free summers as soon as 2040. That not only would spell big trouble for walruses (and polar bears), but could bring an increase in shipping traffic—the impacts of which are a big question mark for Arctic wildlife.

Noren says it’s sad walruses don’t get as much attention as other animals, but she gets it. She used to think of them as unintelligent Jabba the Hutts. After working closely with several captive walruses over the course of a year, though, she now sees them as individuals with unique personalities, like dolphins. She’s learned walruses have an amazingly diverse vocal repertoire, are surprisingly intelligent, and are very social.

“In fact, when they meet, they blow in each other’s faces to understand who’s who,” she says. “So when I’d come visit them, they’d come over to me, and they’d want me to blow in their faces, and I’m like, ‘All right, but I just had my coffee. You asked for it!’”

Come on, folks. Are we really going to let a two-ton, whiskered beast that blows kisses go extinct?


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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