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A USGS film released in November 2012 will take you on a journey along with USGS researchers tracking walruses going about their daily lives in the remote Chukchi Sea.

Walruses hang out on an ice floe in the water.
Female walruses and their young must haul out of the water to rest between foraging bouts. Photograph by Sarah Sonsthagen, USGS, taken July 15, 2012, in the Chukchi Sea.

by Catherine Puckett and Paul Laustsen

A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) film released in November 2012 will take you on a journey along with USGS researchers tracking walruses going about their daily lives in the remote Chukchi Sea. The film, Tracking Pacific Walrus: Expedition to the Shrinking Chukchi Sea Ice, follows scientists as they travel to the Chukchi Sea to examine how these mammals are faring in an Arctic environment with sparse summer sea ice and increasing human activity.

The USGS-produced film contains exclusive footage of the large mammals in their natural habitat, documenting the lives of these huge animals as they raise their young, dive for clams and worms on the ocean floor, and congregate with other walruses.

A Changing Arctic Climate Means Changing Arctic Ecosystems

A map shows the tracklines of walruses with radio tags in the Arctic Ocean.
Paths of walruses tracked in 2012. Slightly modified (labels added for Arctic Ocean and Hanna Shoal) from a USGS video on the subject.

Arctic sea ice is melting faster than originally forecasted: some researchers predict that the first ice-free summer could occur in the 2030s, and possibly as early as the 2020s. But warming temperatures are causing other changes as well—increasing coastal erosion, deteriorating permafrost, and major changes in the dynamics of freshwater flows. These changes influence biological communities and the ways in which human communities interact with them. For example, the longer open-water season in the Arctic is allowing an increase in shipping, tourism, energy production, and other human activities in this remote region.

As part of the USGS Changing Arctic Ecosystems initiative, USGS researchers are identifying and investigating the linkages among physical processes (such as sea ice melting at a faster rate), ecosystems, and wildlife populations. By understanding the degree to and manner in which wildlife species adapt to rapid environmental change, resource managers and policy makers will have a better foundation for making critical decisions now and in the future.

New Research on Pacific Walrus and Sea Ice

Image: Radio Tagged Adult Female Walrus on Ice Floe
Adult female walrus on ice floe photographed shortly after receiving a behavior-monitoring satellite-linked radio tag from USGS researchers. Data acquired from such radio tags are providing insights into the distribution and behavior of Pacific walruses during a time when their summer sea-ice habitat is rapidly changing. Photograph by Sarah Sonsthagen, USGS, taken July 15, 2012, in the Chukchi Sea.

The information gained through tracking large marine mammals, such as polar bears and walruses, is helping USGS scientists understand how disappearing Arctic sea ice is affecting the region's ecosystems and the species that inhabit these ecosystems. For example, a report published in Marine Ecology Progress Series in November 2012 ("Walrus areas of use in the Chukchi Sea during sparse sea ice cover") by USGS and Russian scientists revealed that diminishing summer sea ice in the Arctic over the past 5 years has caused behavioral changes in Pacific walruses. The population-level effects of these changes are unknown, and the subject is being actively investigated by the USGS.

Using a simple darting system, scientists attached radio-tracking tags to 251 walruses in the Chukchi Sea. The tags transmitted the animals' whereabouts and whether they were in the water and feeding. Using the tagging data gathered from 2008–2011, scientists created detailed maps of the walruses' seasonal movements and feeding patterns relative to the location and amount of sea ice.

When Chukchi Sea Ice Retreats North of the Continental-Shelf Edge, Walruses Haul Out

The study found that due to earlier melting of the ice in the summer, walruses arrived earlier in their northern feeding grounds on the broad continental shelf of the Chukchi Sea. When the sea ice over the shelf melted completely in the fall, however, they hauled out onshore in large aggregations and foraged for food closer to shore. ("Hauling out" refers to seals and walruses temporarily leaving the water for sites on land or ice.)

A woman steers a small boat while the man next to her uses binoculars to search.
Sarah Sonsthagen (left) drives a skiff as Tony Fischbach scans the ice for resting walruses to radio-tag. On an hourly basis, these instruments show whether the walrus is in the water, resting out of the water, or foraging at the seafloor. The radio tag will fall off after 3 to 12 weeks. Screenshot from video "Tracking Pacific Walrus: Expedition to the Shrinking Chukchi Sea Ice."

The specific effects of these behavioral changes are not yet understood; however, scientists do know that while onshore, young walruses are susceptible to mortality from trampling. The USGS has recently published a study that examined the population effects of this type of mortality, finding that loss of young animals to haul-out mortality affects the population more than loss of adult females in the harvest. In light of this finding, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is increasing its ongoing efforts to protect hauled-out walruses from disturbance. Additionally, hauling out onshore and using nearshore feeding areas may require more energy for animals that are used to simply diving off their sea-ice platforms for food at the bottom of the shallow Chukchi Sea.

Data from this study will provide resource managers with basic information on areas important for walruses, such as the Hanna Shoal region (in the Chukchi Sea, about 100 miles off the northwest coast of Alaska; see map above), as human activities in the Arctic increase. The areas of walrus foraging observed in this study overlap with oil and gas lease blocks leased by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

The Marine Ecology Progress Series paper, published as the feature article in the November 2012 issue ("Walrus areas of use in the Chukchi Sea during sparse sea ice cover"), is part of the USGS Changing Arctic Ecosystems initiative at the Alaska Science Center.

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