Monday, June 21, 2010

The Walrus Post

Guest Science + Story blogger Karen Romano Young aboard ICESCAPE, Coast Guard Cutter Healy, Arctic Circle, 21 June 2010

“ ‘The time has come,’ the walrus said, ‘to talk of many things --’ ”

Such as what a big red ship was doing pushing through the ice floes at the head of Kotzebue Sound the other night, and what the big brown tusked lumps on the ice were thinking.

The walrus hauled out on the floes seemed to raft by us like Huckleberry Finn drifting down the Mississippi; actually of course they were immobile as swimmers lounging on poolside, while the Coast Guard Cutter Healy passed them by.  They were serene, but we on board were not. One cadet spotted a big bull swimming, and dashed along the rail to stay parallel to it, calling, “Walrus, my boy!”

Inside the ship in the Future Lab, my friend Haley Smith Kingsland, who’s writing the ICESCAPE blog for the official ICESCAPE site, googled up the collective noun for walrus: pod or herd. But, after seeing the walrus in their stoic groups along the floes, I searched for a more stately term. It ought to be a court of walrus, or a panel of walrus, or a parliament. This animal has attitude, and we can only imagine what it thinks of us.

But enough anthropomorphizing. My fantasy life aside, there is quite a walrus story, with a rich inner life, and with broad ramifications.  The walrus, some say, could be as much a poster child for the effects of climate change as its compatriot, the polar bear.

Walrus require ice to haul out on once they’ve finished diving deep and scouring the bottom for benthic (bottom) creatures such as snails and clams. But what happens when the ice melts? Walrus spend 80 percent of their time swimming, foraging for food at the sea floor, and then they haul out to rest on the ice.  Now that the Arctic climate is changing, the ice cover of the shallow continental shelf has melted back, and what ice can be found it too often over waters too deep for walrus to dive through on one breath.  The walrus have to move their poolside perch to the beach, too far from the food they rely upon.

Besides, the food they rely upon in turn relies upon algae that forms at the bottom of the ice. Without the ice, without the algae, without the benthic life...the Arctic could find itself without the number of walrus that once thrived here. And so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has petitioned for endangered status for the Pacific walrus.  A detailed report will be published in September 2010 in the Federal Register.

For another view, here’s a walrus doodle I did based on my walrus photographs and the information I found by researching the work of scientists Chad Jay of the U.S. Geological Survey, Carleton Ray of University of Virginia,  and Lee Cooper and Jacqueline Grebmeier of the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Lab, and by talking to ICESCAPE’s own Karen Frey, from Clark University.

Visit the Coast Guard Cutter Healy online.

Read the official ICESCAPE blog.

For more of my ICESCAPE experiences, please check
Climate Central:
NASA’s What on Earth?

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