For the Indigenous people living along the shores of the Bering and the Chukchi Seas, the Pacific walrus is more than just a neighbor. In this remote and cold environment, people relied for generations on the walrus for their survival, obtaining the resources for food, shelter, tools, boats, sleds, and clothing. From ancestral knowledge relayed from generation to generation they know how spring seasonal changes will foretell the arrival of thousands of walruses on their northward migration to the High Arctic. First mothers and calves arrive, and by the time they pass the males come and follow. But in recent years there has been a shift. Warming due to climate change is altering the frozen Arctic seascape and the walruses are struggling to adapt. Walrus haulouts, places on shore where walruses come to rest on their seasonal migrations, are now deadly events.
In the past two decades, both scientists and Indigenous hunters in Alaska and Siberia noticed a marked shift in the nature of the walrus haulouts. The number of walruses rapidly grew at a few sites, up to tens of thousands, numbers never seen or heard of before. Often, massive bulls weighing close to two tons now wrestle for a place on the beach with females and small calves a fraction their size. Easily spooked, walruses will stampede to the safety of the ocean at the slightest noise, often leaving behind dozens of trampled corpses unable to escape from the packed gathering.
The change has been dramatic and quick, and for scientists trying to understand how the walruses will ultimately fair in the face of climate change, a lack of understanding about their biology is frustrating. As Igor Krupnik, the museum’s Anthropology curator for the Arctic says, “…learning about the Pacific walrus takes dedication. It also requires close work with Indigenous hunters and a deep appreciation of their knowledge. Where English speakers usually use one name for the species, indigenous people hunters have dozens of descriptive names that note the sex, age, or other notable characteristic of the animals. Any Native village in the North can beat a good university by the number of people experienced in monitoring walrus and knowing about its migration, health status, and food base. We just have to listen to these people.”
For most of their lives, walruses live in the middle of the ocean, relying on the winter ice to mate, birth and rear their young, and forage for clams and other bivalves at the deep offshore seafloor. Studying the walruses when they haulout on shore during a fraction of the year, usually in the fall, is much easier, but it only offers a small glimpse into their day-to-day lives. The Bering Sea coastline also spans a vast area with scientists from Russia and Alaska who have been often unable to communicate with one another due to political reasons.
Biologists began to study walruses in earnest following the end of Yankee whaling era in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By that time the Pacific walrus population likely decreased from 300,000 animals to 50,000, due to commercial overhunting for blubber, hides, and tusks for ivory. It wasn’t until the 1950s that biologist Francis Fay began to study and assess the walrus population in Alaska. It was Fay’s multiple decades studying the walruses that enlightened the scientific community to the basics of species life.
Fay firmly established that sea ice is key to walrus survival. The Bering Sea where they live used to be covered in thick ice from about October to the end of May, even June. During this time walruses, especially females and their young and newborns, spend most of their time far out to sea where they rely on ice to rest. When the ice began to recede in earnest in May the mother walruses would follow it north. Indigenous hunters would note distinct waves of walrus passing through on their path to northern grounds and have special names for them.
Scientists have continued Fay’s work, adding aerial surveys to their arsenal of tools to help understand the massive walrus. It seemed that the walruses were finally making a comeback and their population likely reached between 130,000 and 300,000 individuals by 1980.
Starting in the 1990s seasonal weather patterns began to shift. Today, the winter is no longer cold from start to finish, but has periods of warming. It is a trend unlikely to change— while the rest of the world has warmed close to 0.8 degrees since the late 19th century the Arctic has warmed close to 3 degrees over the same period of time. The ice cannot build like it once did. Instead of broken pack ice the ice floes are dispersed and distant from one another, making them less resilient to the beating of the wind. Often, the floes are too small to support a group of walruses. It also means that the ice melts significantly sooner. Local hunters noted that the spring migration often occurs three to four weeks earlier than it once had.
For Krupnik, who has worked with the Yupik, Chukchi, and Inupiat knowledge experts along the Bering Sea, and studied people who hunted walrus for the majority of his career, the future as it stands is clear. As the ice continues to melt walruses will no longer have a safe place to mate and rear their young, and instead will come to shore where overcrowding, predators and other dangers lurk.
Walruses are clearly in peril. Today the population likely stands at around 260,000 individuals, but the world they live in is slowly disappearing. They have not drawn the attention that polar bears and other Arctic animals have received for their struggle to adapt to climate change. However, a moving documentary short about the plight of walruses by The New Yorker recently awed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, earning an Oscar nomination for best documentary short. Despite their leathery and warty skin, and fatty roles, perhaps walruses are endearing enough for people to care about their plight.
Editor's Note- A special thanks to Igor Krupnik for his help with this article.