The walrus detectives

What's behind the Alaska walrus haul-outs? Everyone's calling climate change, but the truth is, we don't know.


 

If you spent any time on the internet last week, you probably saw the photos: A giant, roiling mass of 35,000 walrus crowded onto a beach in northwest Alaska. The photos, captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were featured on the BBC, the Associated Press and more Twitter and Facebook feeds than anyone could count.

cmda0008-2-jpg
Walrus haul out at Point Lay, Alaska, on Sept. 27
Corey Accardo (photographer) NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML USFWS Permit No. MA212570 Funded by BOEM (IA Contract No. M11PG00033)

Most reports — with the exception of a few ultra-conservative sites — decisively linked the record numbers of on-shore walrus to record low sea ice offshore, and overnight, the walrus became an international symbol of climate change. The New York Times called the situation a “walrus crisis,” and NBC News reported that it was a “ very visual sign of what wildlife scientists know and worry about: From the Arctic to Antarctica, some species are having to adapt, or die, in the face of the long-term threat of a warming planet.”

But two walrus experts currently using a National Science Foundation grant to analyze recent, historic and prehistoric walrus samples to piece together the species’ 4,000-year history say that we don’t understand enough about “normal” walrus behavior to know whether the massive haul-out is, in fact, unusual. Nicole Misarti, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Lara Horstmann, a professor of marine biology, say that it’s certainly not unprecedented: Massive haul-outs of walrus are annual events in Russia, and were recorded in Alaska in 1938. Just because the walrus haven’t hauled out in this specific location in such large numbers during the limited time we’ve been studying them doesn’t mean that the behavior is necessarily abnormal, or related to climate change.

Nonetheless, Misarti and Horstmann aren't ruling climate change out, either. There’s no doubt that the trend of more and more walrus gathering on Alaskan beaches in recent years mirrors a decrease in Arctic sea ice, “but nobody knows enough about walrus to say whether it’s a lack of sea ice or sea ice moving in a different direction or prey moving to different areas,” Misarti says.  “Those are the burning questions.”

Plus, reports claiming that the haul-out is harmful to the walrus or is a “crisis” are overblown, the researchers say. “It’s important that people realize it’s not a mass die off and it’s not a mass stranding,” Horstmann notes.

“It’s not like whales stranded on a beach. The walrus are purposely hauling out there — they’re not helpless and the numbers of trampled young are actually quite low so far,” adds Misarti. 

Yet like most species, walrus numbers in Alaska have indeed decreased over the past several decades, and those that remain are vulnerable to climate change. Just as vulnerable, though, are the subsistence villages that depend on walrus. That’s why Misarti and Horstmann are combing through historic interviews and analyzing trace hormones like cortisol (the “stress hormone”) collected from bone and tooth samples to figure out how walrus populations responded to past climactic events like the Little Ice Age or the Medieval Warm Period. “We really don’t know much about walrus, so pretty much any information we can give subsistence hunters or state agencies is going to be helpful,” Misarti says.

Aiding their groundbreaking research is the fact that walrus teeth have growth rings similar to those in trees. “With a tree ring, you can look at an individual tree and how it’s changed over time,” Horstmann says.

“We’re doing some of that, but we’re also looking at groups [of walrus] over time.," Misarti explains. "It would be like looking at ten trees from 100 years ago, ten trees from 1,000 years ago, and so on.” 

Still, the lab work is slow and painstaking, and one year into a four-year study, the researchers don’t yet understand how walrus react to environmental changes. One hypothesis behind the current trend is that larger haul-outs used to be more common in Alaska, but the introduction of snowmobiles and ATVs drove the animals farther to sea. Another is that perhaps clams have flourished recently in the area, and the walrus are simply following their favorite food source. And a third, of course, is that melting sea ice is driving more females and juveniles onto shore.

Again, no one knows, but media hyperbole that oversimplifies the threats walrus do face and plays into the growing tendency to relate any unusual event to climate change only gives climate deniers a stronger case for decrying all climate science as bunk. 

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • RANCH HAND & HOUSING OPPORTUNITY IN DURANGO, CO
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....