Opinion | Energy & Environment

Walruses are jumping off cliffs to their deaths — yes, because of climate change

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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.

They lie limp in crashing waves.

 

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. 

Since then, massive walrus haul-outs have been documented year after year when sea ice disappears. 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.

A 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculated that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees would require cutting global human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide by half by 2030 and reaching "net zero" emissions around 2050.

To have any hope of meeting that goal, we must take swift action to keep fossil fuels in the ground. There is more than enough carbon in the world's already developed oil, gas and coal fields to push us past 2 degrees of warming.

But the climate denier in the Oval Office is blocking action to curb fossil fuel consumption and production at every turn. President Trump has done everything from moving to open vast areas of our public lands and oceans to drilling to trying to dismantle rules to clean up pollution from power plants and cars.

On top of blocking action to combat climate change, the Trump administration has put the Pacific walrus in its crosshairs.

Following a 2008 petition from my organization, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2011 that the Pacific walrus needed the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Officials concluded that climate change would destroy the walrus's habitat and shrink its population.

But in October 2017 the Trump administration reversed that determination and denied the walrus protection. We then filed a lawsuit challenging that decision.

Here's the bottom line: The walrus can't press buttons on a remote control to evade death and suffering. And when we look away, we're not just ignoring their doom, we're ignoring our own.

As climate change melts their sea-ice habitat, it also fuels monster hurricanes that hammer our coastlines. And it ramps up crop-killing droughts, the spread of mosquito-borne diseases and more. The loss of biodiversity and the fate of humanity are intertwined.

Animal lovers of the world must bear witness to the walrus's peril. We need to demand that our leaders stop protecting the fossil fuel industry over wildlife and people alike. 

Shaye Wolf is the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit membership organization founded in 1989, with approximately 1.1 million members and online activists, known for its work protecting endangered species through legal action, scientific petitions, creative media and grassroots activism.

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