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April 20, 2019

The walrus’s peril

Opinion

April 20, 2019

The new Netflix series “Our Planet” documents the devastation wrought by humans on animals and their habitats. It’s heartbreaking. In fact, some scenes are so wrenching that Netflix last week tweeted a list of time stamps for scenes that “animal lovers may want to skip.”

One of those scenes is in the second episode (“Frozen World”). It shows Pacific walruses, one after another, tumbling off 250-foot-high cliffs to their deaths. As a scientist who works to protect walruses and other species from the ravages of climate change, I dreaded watching this scene with every bone in my body. But I did. And I want everyone to watch it, especially “animal lovers.”

There’s a difference between covering your eyes during the ending of “Old Yeller” and fast-forwarding through this walrus footage. In the former, you’re saving yourself from the unnecessary heartbreak of a fictional yellow Labrador mix’s death. In the latter, you’re turning a blind eye to the very real suffering that human-caused climate change is inflicting on walruses. Unlike Old Yeller, the walruses need help, and they need it now.

The walrus deaths shown in “Our Planet” are becoming increasingly common as the sea ice they depend on melts away faster than we predicted.

That’s because the Pacific walrus needs sea ice year-round for giving birth, nursing their young and resting. Over the past decade, climate change has caused summer sea ice to disappear from the walrus’s shallow foraging grounds in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Without summer sea ice for resting, walrus mothers and calves have been forced ashore in huge numbers, where they have limited access to food and are vulnerable to being trampled to death, attacked by predators or crowded into dangerous places looking for space to rest – like the edge of a cliff.

“Some of them find space away from the crowds. They struggle up the 80-meter cliffs, an extraordinary challenge for a 1-ton animal used to sea ice,” narrator David Attenborough says solemnly. “At least up here, there is space to rest. A walrus’ eyesight out of water is poor, but they can sense the other down below. As they get hungry, they need to return to the sea.”

What follows is footage of walruses tumbling one by one down sharp cliffs, crashing into the rocky beach and other walruses below. “In their desperation to do so, hundreds fall from heights they should never have scaled,” Attenborough says.

The first major documentation of warming-related walrus deaths was in 2007 when 3,000 Pacific walruses were trampled to death on Russian shores after receding summer sea ice drove them to haul out in mass.

In August 2017 thousands of Pacific walruses were forced ashore near Point Lay, Alaska – the earliest haul-out event federal officials have recorded. A survey of the area that September found 64 dead walruses, most less than a year old. They were likely crushed to death in a stampede. And it’s not only summer sea ice that’s melting out from under walruses. During the past two years, winter sea ice in Alaska’s Bering Sea hit record lows, falling to levels that hadn’t been projected for another 40 to 50 years.

Without bold action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, walruses face a world without the sea ice they need for survival.

This has been excerpted from: ‘Walruses Are Jumping Off Cliffs to Their Deaths – Yes, Because of Climate Change’.

Courtesy: Commondreams.org

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