Earth Matters: Walrus on thin ice: A challenge for them and an opportunity to help

  • Walrus on ice in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait. Sea ice is a critical habitat that they use individually or in small groups.  U.S. Geological Survey

  • A female walrus resting on shore. The absence of ice is causing walrus to gather in exceptionally large onshore herds, an unhealthy situation. RYAN KINGSBURY/U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

For the Gazette
Monday, June 20, 2022

What weighs 1.5 tons, is 12 feet long, has enlarged canine teeth that can grow to over 36 inches and is featured in a Beatles song? If you guessed walrus, you’re correct.

Here in Massachusetts, we tend not to think much about walrus, but there’s an opportunity for you to virtually travel to the Arctic in search of walrus. Here’s some background.

I became interested in Bering Sea walrus while aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy and when visiting the Siberian Yupik community of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, just south of the Bering Strait. The Arctic is warming at an alarming rate, three times faster than the rest of the planet. This past March, the temperature at the North Pole was 50F above average.

The loss of sea ice has been equally dramatic — declining 13% per decade since 1979. The oldest sea ice, that which persists from year to year, is fast disappearing. On the Healy voyage, scientists raced to understand the effects of warming on the Arctic marine ecosystem. Meanwhile, in the face of diminishing ice, the Gambell community struggles to preserve their cultural identity.

Walrus, a marine mammal, are divided into two subspecies, Atlantic and Pacific. They appear clumsy and ungainly in contrast to the orca, bowhead whales, ice seals and polar bears that share their environment. But looks are deceiving — walrus are wonderfully adapted to the frozen Arctic environment.

Their streamlined body and appendages allow them to swim up to 22 mph; their shape also helps conserve body heat. Below their skin a large male can have 6 inches of blubber, a tissue having a high density of blood vessels. Moving blood to or from the outer layer of blubber regulates body temperature in the same way our bodies move blood to or from our extremities.

A walrus’s color can change from brown, to pink or white, depending on how much blood is being sent to the blubber. Walrus can stay submerged for 30 minutes and dive to depths of 800 feet, although they concentrate their time in shallower waters of the continental shelf feeding grounds.

Walrus use their tusks for hauling out onto ice floes, keeping breathing holes open, and for territorial and predator defense. They forage on the seabed for clams, their primary food, by brushing the sea floor with their enlarged, tactile, whiskered lips while jetting water out of their nostrils to stir the bottom. They can consume over 100 pounds of food a day that can also include crab, snails and worms.

Walrus are herd animals that spend time on shore in groups ranging from a few to thousands. Sea ice is a critical habitat that they use individually or in small groups. They give birth and care for their young on the ice and use it as a platform from which to feed and on which to rest while offshore. Moving on, around and under ice helps them evade predators like orca and polar bear.

The absence of ice is causing walrus to gather in exceptionally large onshore herds — onshore haul-outs are being reported in the tens of thousands. Females and young who would normally be offshore on ice are crowding into large herds where they are more exposed to disease and trampling from stampedes.

Overcrowding on shore leads to crowding on foraging grounds and depletion of prey. As a result, they spend more energy traveling farther to find food.

While visiting Gambell, a village of 680, I was invited to the home of Willis Walinga. Willis was the second oldest person in Gambell, an elder and whaling captain, who explained that subsistence hunting of walrus is a cornerstone of community life and identity. How to hunt walrus and survive boating in the ice is passed from generation to generation.

When a hunt is successful, the meat is divided into “shares,” providing food for the boat crew, their families, relatives and community members in need. Walrus follow the ice, so when there is less ice, there are fewer walrus. When there are fewer walrus, the boats must go farther from shore to find them. In an 18-foot boat this is more dangerous and expensive.

Ice, food, culture and identity are parts of the whole; there is concern and anxiety about what the future holds.

Across the Arctic, scientists and Native communities are grappling with the loss of sea ice and impact on walrus. What can we who live so far away possibly do to help? The British Antarctic Survey and World Wildlife Fund are providing an interesting opportunity to get involved. Focusing on the Atlantic walrus, they are recruiting volunteers to join their “Walrus from Space” project to answer two fundamental questions: Where are the walrus, and how many are there?

Through your home computer they provide easy-to-follow training, then send sets of satellite images to examine and report findings. From thousands of miles away, this research project creates a simple and fun opportunity to virtually experience the Arctic while making a meaningful contribution to walrus conservation. To learn more, visit wwf.org.uk/learn/walrus-from-space.

Tom Litwin is a conservation biologist and former director of the Clark Science Center at Smith College. He is retired from the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine and Farmington, Conn., where he served as the vice president for Education, and continues as a visiting scholar. For more about sea ice in the Arctic, see pbs.org/wgbh/nova//extremeice/thinice.html. For links to his previous columns about his trip to the Arctic, go to https://hitchcockcenter.org/?s=tom+litwin and scroll down to his three-part story about vanishing sea ice.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 13 years. Amid the pandemic, the Hitchcock Center adapted its programming and has a sliding-scale fee structure for families facing financial challenges. To help the Hitchcock Center during this difficult time, consider a donation at hitchcockcenter.org.