We think walruses are incredible. On land, they’re hulking, belching, flatulent one tonne beasts. They have a substantial layer of blubber covered by thick skin (up to 4cm which is amongst the thickest skin in the world – human skin is only around 1.3mm thick) and coarse hair. But most impressive are their long tusks and stiff bristles around their mouths. They certainly make a statement.
They can live to around 40 years old, and it shows. Most of them carry a vast map of scars on their skin – wounds inflicted by fellow walrus when they gather in tightly packed “haulouts”. They let their neighbours feel their displeasure with a sharp puncture from a tusk. Walruses also use their incredible tusks for fighting, to form breathing holes and to haul their huge bodies onto the sea ice.
Underwater, they’re almost majestic. They make many strange underwater sounds – one of them is like a deep-pitched church bell. They’re rarely found in the deep, instead preferring to feed at the bottom of shallow waters around coastlines, mostly eating molluscs.
There are two subspecies of walrus – the Atlantic and Pacific – which both occupy different areas of the Arctic. But for both walruses, their world is changing fast.
Pacific walruses spend spring and summer feeding over the huge, shallow continental shelf in the Chukchi Sea. They use the sea ice as a platform for resting, and where mothers leave their young calves, between dives.
In the past decade, earlier melting of sea ice in summer has meant the ice has receded hundreds of kilometres north of the shelf, forcing abnormally large numbers of Pacific walruses - up to 35,000 - ashore.
And these mass gatherings are deadly. Stampedes occur as easily spooked walruses trample one another in their attempt to reach the water. Many walruses, particularly young calves, die. Those that do survive must travel exhausting distances to find food, as nearby sources are quickly depleted.
Climate change isn’t just melting the walruses’ habitat - it’s introducing new threats.
Killer whales aren’t designed for ice – they have a large dorsal fin which could strike the sea ice, causing them pain (most Arctic whales have no dorsal fin). But melting ice means these predators have a whole new feeding ground to hunt in. And they hunt walrus.
On land, polar bears are also attracted to large haulouts - and the smell of carcasses. They not only disturb walruses but can endanger people in nearby communities.
Unlike Pacific walruses, Atlantic walruses prefer to rest ashore, as most feeding grounds in the Atlantic are closer to land. This means they’re highly susceptible to disturbance and noise - from tourists, low-level aircraft and passing ships. This human-made noise is only set to worsen as the Arctic becomes more accessible with diminishing sea ice.
Opportunities for shipping routes, commercial fishing and infrastructure such as housing and harbours are opening up across the Arctic. These activities cause a huge amount of noise and break-up sea ice, whilst fishing can result in the accidental capture of walrus in nets and bottom trawlers destroying feeding grounds.
Oil and gas developers are also looking northwards, meaning walruses could face the risk of toxic oil spills - virtually impossible to clean up on ice.
What are we doing?
- We’re supporting research into walrus populations and feeding areas. Our findings enable us to make recommendations to better safeguard them.
- In Russia where the biggest haulouts occur on land, we’re working with nearby communities to keep people safe, by removing walrus carcasses and scaring any polar bears away.
- We’re also speaking to tourist operators and shipping companies to reduce the risks to walruses, as well as researching walrus behaviour at haulouts and the effects shipping has on them.
- In Canada, we’ve produced a guide for mariners on the Hudson Strait to help them identify and report on walruses and their habitat, and teach them what to do during any encounters.
From the field
Tom Arnbom, our walrus expert, got up close and personal with walruses from the Laptev Sea.
Along the Russian Arctic coast is the Laptev Sea, where the Atlantic and Pacific walrus populations meet. Our mission was to find out if the walruses of the Laptev Sea were genetically unique from Pacific and Atlantic walruses, and therefore needed special protection.
The team and I crawled along the ground, trying to get as close to the walruses as possible without disturbing them. We managed to gather over 30 DNA samples using “biopsy darts” which, when shot at a walrus, gathered a small skin sample - harmless to the walrus.
The results proved that walruses from the Laptev Sea are similar to Pacific walruses, but they have some unique characteristics which warrant them being managed differently. This analysis was vital to protecting this population.
During this field trip, I noticed every walrus haulout had a polar bear nearby. One pup per month is enough for a bear. This is the future for some polar bear populations as sea ice declines; scavenging on walrus carcasses or trying to hunt calves. The Arctic is very different now from when I first started working there in the 1970s.
What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic
Climate change remains by far the greatest threat to walruses. If we don’t start to see climate change as an emergency and act now, sea ice will continue to decline and the risk to walruses will grow. And that’s the least of our problems.
“We are waking a sleeping giant as a result of climate change. What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. It's on the UK’s doorstep and it affects us all.” Rod Downie, Chief Polar Advisor, WWF
Climate change poses a huge threat to our future. If we lose the battle to stabilise the polar regions, people and nature around the planet will suffer. There could be increased water shortages, changes in food production, and more extreme weather events – from flooding to droughts.
Climate change is driven by us, but it can be fixed by us.
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