As Arctic ice retreats north, Alaska walruses head for land

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 26, 2010 

ANCHORAGE _ In one small North Slope village in Alaska, the winds of climate change smell like walrus.

"Oooohh, man," said Point Lay tribal administrator Sophie Henry, describing the odor that wafts into town when a sea breeze hits thousands of blubbery, barking walruses camping nearby. "Rotten. It stinks."

Ten times worse than a dog yard, she said. Think pig farm with nearly one-ton pigs.

On Saturday, the animals were about a mile from the town, said Point Lay Fire Chief Bill Tracey. The swarm is massive, estimated at anywhere from several thousand walruses to as many as 20,000 congregating there since late August.

It's the third time in four years that herds of walruses have been spotted on northwest Alaska shores. In that time, the Point Lay haul-out appears to be the largest _ a writhing, groaning example of a phenomenon that scientists blame on rising temperatures and melting sea ice.

Normally the animals would be at sea, riding floating ice floes that span the shallow continental shelf between Russia and Alaska, say federal researchers in Anchorage.

On the ocean they live a simple routine. Flop off the ice, dive for clams, worms or other invertebrates. Repeat.

But this year, as in other recent summers, the ice retreated farther north than usual. The Pacific walruses had a choice: Follow the ice into deeper waters outside their feeding habitat, or bolt for land.

That's how you end up with a sea of walruses outside your village.

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