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Walrus inconsistencies

The story of the Point Lay walrus haulout continues to provoke a great deal of interest. Today the reins have been taken up by Climate Progress, who have got hold of walrus expert Tony Fischbach, who wants us all to know that what we are seeing is new:

Under historical conditions, there has always been sea ice over the Chukchi Sea over the summer...This is a real change that we see thousands and tens of thousands of animals coming to shore and resting together in these large haul-outs.

This is a pretty interesting statement. I had a look at Cryosphere Today's animation of historic Arctic sea ice and as far as I can see there is rarely any sea ice over the Chukchi Sea in the summer. Take a look and see what you think. Chuckchi is pretty much at twelve o'clock, where the North American and Asian continents almost touch. In passing, we might observe that Dr Fischbach seems to be in the media most years discussing walrus haulouts and their alleged link to sea ice. Here he is discussing the 2010 haulout at Point Lay. This might colour some readers' views of him, but we should observe also that this doesn't make him wrong. Indeed he might just be concerned.

Regardless of the truth here, I'm struck by Susan Crockford's observation that in fact there are records of mass haulouts on land at St Lawrence Island, to the south of the Bering Strait and far from the sea ice. There are also records of mass haulouts on land at Wrangel Island when sea ice was close. Interestingly, the latter events are mentioned in a paper by Jay et al 2012, the author team of which included Dr Fischbach.

In years when the ice edge retreated far to the north, walruses in the western Chukchi Sea often hauled out in large numbers on Wrangel Island.

I'm finding this statement hard to square with the opinion he offered to Climate Progress about summer sea ice in the Chukchi Sea.

The connection between sea ice and walrus haulouts thus seems far from clear. One assumes that to make this case, one would want to find a correlation of some kind between haulout population and distance to the sea ice.

Dr Fischbach's paper doesn't particularly help here - it is mainly about the range of the Pacific walrus rather than haulouts per se, but haulouts are mentioned: September and October in 3 (2009, 2010, and 2011) of our 4 study years, walruses foraged in nearshore areas, in contrast to foraging in offshore areas in the past, because in recent years, sea ice disappeared over the continental shelf and caused young and adult female walruses to haul-out on shore in large numbers, a condition that did not commonly occur in the past (Fay et al. 1984).


With increasing sea ice loss, it is likely that young and adult female walruses will occupy the Chukchi Sea for longer periods during the year and increase their use of coastal haul-outs and associated nearshore foraging areas (Jay et al. 2011).

I have struggled to find any support in Fay et al for the statement made in the first quote (if you review the PDF, start at p231), although it is not entirely clear what claim the citation is supporting. I'm guessing it's the claim that in the past walruses foraged offshore rather than nearshore areas - in the 1980s concerns over sea ice retreat were presumably few and far between.

However, Fay certainly discusses walruses being in nearshore areas, so this would seem to contradict my supposition. There is certainly no mention in Fay of large shore haulouts, but the paper only occasionally mentions haulout size at all. The citation therefore seems to be spurious, but it's a long paper and I may have missed something.

Interestingly, we do learn from Fay that haulout sites fall in and out of use with the walrus population, sometimes for decades at a time. And what I found particularly intruiging was this map of walrus sightings, to which I have added an arrow showing Point Lay:

There are similar maps for each month of the year and together this set of maps seems to show that there are very large populations of walrus at Point Lay from July to September.

This then leaves us with the question of whether the haulouts are land haulouts or whether the walrus are residing on the sea ice. Here's the sea ice for September 1982, a time when ice extent was much larger than today. As far as I can see, the sea ice is far, far from Point Lay.


Thus I assume that the haulouts at Point Lay that were observed in the past are likely to have been on land rather than on the sea ice.

I'm thus coming to the conclusion that my original supposition was correct. This story is ecodrivel. We know that large haulouts take place in the Bering and Chukchi seas. We know that walruses have always visited Point Lay and that the sea ice at the time is far enough away that they haulouts must have been on the land.

To be fair, the reason walruses visit this part of the world appears to be something of a mystery:

Areas of concentrated walrus foraging generally corresponded to regions of high benthic biomass...A notable exception was the occurrence of concentrated foraging in the nearshore area of northwestern Alaska. This area has low macroinfaunal biomass, a sandy substrate, and is dominated by the sand dollar Echinarachnius parma (Feder et al. 1994), which is not a typical prey item of walruses (Sheffield & Grebmeier 2009). Walruses used this area in June during their northward migration in all study years, then again in late August and September during the period from 2009 to 2011, when sea ice completely disappeared over the continental shelf in the eastern Chukchi Sea. The reasons walruses selected this apparently depauperate area for use in August and September are unclear, and it seems unlikely that the area would adequately support the foraging demands of the large aggregations of walruses that occupied the area.

However, the fact that we don't know why walruses visit the area does not mean that it is reasonable to claim that they do so because of global warming

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Reader Comments (39)

What do you mean we can't link this to Mann Made Global Warming (tm) because we just don't know what's going on? This is perfect for catastrophiliacs because this is EXACTLY what they have always done, linking everything to vicious warming because we dint know why!!!


Oct 3, 2014 at 3:28 PM | Unregistered Commentermailman

While you are about it, perhaps you can explain the meaning of the word 'depauperate' (three lines from the end of the last block quote). My guess is that 'pauperate' means impoverished so 'depauperate' must mean unimpoverished or enriched. Perhaps this explains the numbers of walruses.

Oct 3, 2014 at 3:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterTim

Fay, F. H. (1982). "Ecology and Biology of the Pacific Walrus, Odobenus rosmarus divergens Illiger". United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The rest of the year (late summer and fall), walruses tend to form massive aggregations of tens of thousands of individuals on rocky beaches or outcrops. The migration between the ice and the beach can be long-distance and dramatic. In late spring and summer, for example, several hundred thousand Pacific walruses migrate from the Bering Sea into the Chukchi Sea through the relatively narrow Bering Strait."

Migration eh?

Oct 3, 2014 at 3:34 PM | Unregistered Commenterssat

As for "land haulouts" being something new the Moffen Island nature reserve (the first in Svalbard) was established in 1983 to protect a traditional haulotu site. From the official description:

"Moffen Nature Reserve
Protected: 1983 Area: Land area: 5 km² Marine area: 4 km²
Moffen is a small gravel island off the north coast of Spitsbergen. The reserve is in the Nordvest Spitsbergen
National Park. The island is an important resting place for walrus and breeding locality for birds. The whole
island and a 300 m zone beyond the island and skerries are protected. It is forbidden to visit Moffen and the
sea surrounding it from 15 May to 15 September. Many cruise boats sail to Moffen to watch the walrus from
the 300 m limit."

If you want to see walrus close up you can always go further northeast and visit the long-established haulout at Torellneset on the easern coast of Hinlopenstraedet. There is usually a fair amount of sea-ice in Hinlopenstraedet in summer, an if you are lucky you might see the odd walrus hauled out on that too, but don't count on it.

Oct 3, 2014 at 3:49 PM | Unregistered Commentertty

Tim -
I enjoy a chance to delve into dictionaries. 'Depauperate' in this context means "lacking in numbers or variety of species". The etymology: "late Middle English [...] from medieval Latin depauperatus, past participle of depauperare, from de- 'completely' + pauperare 'make poor' (from pauper 'poor')"

Oct 3, 2014 at 3:52 PM | Registered CommenterHaroldW

Walruses today because hurricanes are so much yesterday. Tomorrow who knows apart from those lucky enough to sell pretty pictures of green porn

Oct 3, 2014 at 4:09 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Tim it is short form for 'misunderdepauperated' H/T G W Bush

yes, it's worse than we thought

Oct 3, 2014 at 4:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterH2O: the miracle molecule

Fransis Fay says that the animals keep in front of the expanding ice.

With abundant formation of new ice, the pack rapidly advances southward in October, and its southern edge frequently is below 70”N by the end of that month. At the same time, the walruses also advance southward, mainly ahead of the ice, and to judge from the distribution of sightings in this and the previous month, possibly in two or three “waves.”

Does this mean that the ice is spreading faster this year?

Oct 3, 2014 at 4:20 PM | Registered CommenterLord Beaverbrook

Let's just suppose for a moment that huge numbers of walruses gathering in one place on dry land is due to evil people driving SUVs.

This is a problem because... err...

Why exactly is this a problem?

I mean, I know it's awful, and I'm to blame, but I'm just struggling to put my finger on exactly what it is that's so awful about this.

P.S. I really am truly, truly sorry about causing this. Though I don't personally drive an SUV. I have a Ford Ka. I love it, BTW.

Oct 3, 2014 at 4:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterThe Egg Man

The first observation of a land haulout was in 1604.

The 1960 haulout apparently inspired a science fiction film,, set in the Arctic by John Carpenter.....

Oct 3, 2014 at 4:46 PM | Unregistered Commenterturnedoutnice

There are old films of huge Walrus haulouts. They have been documented in pre-climate-hype periods of history.
This latest bit of climate alarmism, like nearly every single claim by climate alarmists, is bogus made up garbage designed to fund the climate alarm industry.

Oct 3, 2014 at 5:01 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

It has nothing to do with climate change.

They massed at Point Schmidt in 2007.

20,000 gathered at Ryrkaipiy in 2009.

I hear they've booked up Ettrick Bay at Rothesay for next Summer Bank Holiday if the weather's fine.

Oct 3, 2014 at 5:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

Sky News's alarmist reporting on the subject referred to the walruses being "forced" to gather en masse, yet the picture clearly showed plenty of space around the edges of the group, so presumably if they wanted more personal space, they could have it. The location of the haulout was also just one beach on a massive coastline. There must be a reason why they choose to congregate in such close quarters - even if we don't know what it is.

At least the econuts are being environmentally friendly here, with their recycling of old alarmist stories.

Oct 3, 2014 at 5:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

@Turning Tide good one
: You can tell the alarmists are green by the way the way they keep RECYCLING the same already DEBUNKED arguments

Oct 3, 2014 at 5:18 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

So it's neither new, nor demonstrated to be harmful.

Humans congregate in cities too, and the land area of those cities is not enough to support those populations. Have you seen the size of penguin-orgies in Antarctica?

Maybe there is a walrus in the middle of it like Lindsay Lohan come to London. (No offence meant. The play has got reasonable reviews, and she is actually beginning to look pretty good.)

Oct 3, 2014 at 5:39 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Thanks Andrew. I've posted a link to your update on my sea ice post from yesterday.

I wonder if part of the reason for the extra dose of hype regarding this event is that there have so far been no reports of cannibalism among polar bears to report - nothing on that front since 2011 (not a super low sea ice year anyway and involving mostly fat bears, not starving ones).

Maybe they just needed a seasonal event to hang their eco-doom message upon?

And to be very clear: if there was plausible evidence to support the contention that these mass gatherings of walrus were due to lack of sea ice, I would support Fischbach and his colleagues. But the evidence isn't there.

The fact that we don't really know why they gather in such places occasionally in such large numbers is one of those mysteries of biology that drive true scientists to study wild animals.

In my book, ignoring relevant literature from the recent past - and Francis Fay was one of the best, he was meticulous and particularly thorough - in order to make current events stand out as unusual and due to global warming is pretty galling.


Oct 3, 2014 at 5:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterSusan Crockford

Climate Depot has a good write up on this.

Oct 3, 2014 at 7:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterRod

"there have so far been no reports of cannibalism among polar bears to report - nothing on that front since 2011"

Which could be claimed as a sign of worrisome climate change all by itself, since it is perfectly normal for adult male bears (not only polar bears) to kill (and eat) young males and cubs.

Oct 3, 2014 at 7:50 PM | Unregistered Commentertty

"There must be a reason why they choose to congregate in such close quarters - even if we don't know what it is."

But off course, the frecautionary principal requires that every bit of what we don't know be ex-planed by globule worming. Ignorants are the new wisdumb. Ovbiously, the walruses are protesting climax change.


Oct 3, 2014 at 7:52 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

None of the above matters one jot.

"It's worse than we thought"

Oct 3, 2014 at 8:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

They gather there to sing the songs of their people. As to why they bunch up - they all know how tasty they are and the least desirable place to be around hungry polar bears is at the fringes of the herd. Something even schooling fish know.

Oct 3, 2014 at 9:05 PM | Unregistered Commenterdp

Check out the diet of a walrus.

Consider the size of a walrus. Just how in the world would one get up onto an ice floe? Land would seem to be much more convenient if close to food source. There is security/safety in numbers. Increasing polar bear numbers?

They breathe air and must surface and not under the ice. Any reduction or redistribution of the ice would open previously non accessible feeding grounds.

Walrus expert Tony Fischbach has possibly lost his way. I could put it another way but I believe that I'm supposed to be PC and show no emotion nor provide a more telling opinion. Then again maybe he has found his way .... for more grant money and fame among the green crowd.

Oct 3, 2014 at 9:18 PM | Unregistered Commentereyesonu

I am the walrus..

koo koo cha goo.


Oct 3, 2014 at 9:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterRightwinggit

If the climate hypesters like McKibben were limited to only using claims that passed the history test, they would have basically nothing to say.
Arctic sea ice dynamics, stormy cycles, droughts, floods, heat waves, etc. - not one of the climate hypester claims regarding these areas pass the history test.

Oct 3, 2014 at 10:39 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

This strikes me as yet another thing that has just been “discovered”, so cannot have happened before (“Let’s ignore the evidence, and claim yet more proof! Nobody will know.”); the most well-known of these is the ozone hole over Antarctica.

Oct 3, 2014 at 11:34 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

Maybe they (the walrus) were marching (without legs) to raise awareness of the catastrophe that awaits them if the arctic ice continues to expand and block their feeding grounds.

Maybe they were protesting the closure of hunting polar bears which could lead to their genocide.

Maybe they just want us (humans) to shut up and leave them alone.

To find the answer you would need to ask a walrus. Soon there may be a government funded study claiming that the "researchers" have spoken to a walrus and now know that they were protesting against global warming and C02. ;-)

Oct 3, 2014 at 11:44 PM | Unregistered Commentereyesonu

Kovacs appears to be suffering from the common scientist's mental confusion arising when trying to pass one's pet idea as the Scientific Truth.

IOW I really wish scientists, and everybody else, clearly stated when they are mentioning data, and when they are mentioning possible, and most likely still unproven explanations.

What we know is that these haulouts exist. Why they happen, is not clear. Some scientists believe they happen when the ice is far out: however correlation is not causation. For example they might happen because the sea is choppy, and the ice is not there because the sea is choppy, so the relationship might not be as simple as "it's getting warmer".

Also are they signs of endangered walruses? It is not clear. Some have made the hypothesis that when the ice is far out there is less food for the walruses because their preferred clams feed off some algae falling from the ice above. We do not know...nobody has enough data about the clams. Also haulouts seldom if ever leave behind large quantities of dead walruses. Also a hungry walrus should be expected to be a skinny walrus, again something none has documented. Or maybe there should be fewer puppies...nobody knows that either.

Finally there is the usual timescale issue. Some scientists believe the 2000s have seen walruses hauling out in Alaska instead of northern Siberia. Is this unprecedented? Again, that's an hypothesis, not the established truth. Walrus studies have increased a lot after the end of the Cold War. Some established facts tell us a lot about the early research: for example we now for certain that haulouts degenerate into stampedes when an airplane does too low a pass. Needless to say, that has been observed because an airplane or most likely many have done too low a pass.

Ironically, those preaching for the precautionary principle do not appear to have any caution at all about science. More fool them.

Oct 4, 2014 at 12:42 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Probably the worst section of climate alarmism is the species extinction crowd. They have the least actual data and the wildest extrapolations from it, of which this is a good example. It is at its worst in remote and hostile environments where the observations current and historical are sparsest, but crops up everywhere.

A couple of examples - quite recently there was a series on TV about a captive breeding programme for Sumatran tigers. All through it was regularly repeated a ludicrously low figure for numbers surviving in the wild, but when they finally went to the impenetrable Sumatran jungle to look for them, it was revealed that the anti poaching patrols had never actually seen a tiger and the skins etc. retrieved from captured poachers were the only evidence they had of the tigers' existence. The question of how that allowed them to say how many of them there are now and have been historically was never raised.
Closer to home - BBC programme on some sort of supposedly rare vole - usual "expert" predictions of imminent extinction based on their supposed low population density and theoretical habitat loss. This time they did actually find a colony, noted that the actual population density was something like ten times the theoretical, but didn't revise their prediction accordingly.

The question with these things should always be: Is it likely or even possible that credible data exists on which to base the conclusions stated?

Oct 4, 2014 at 1:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterNW

Susan Crockford is great as usual on walruses as well as polar bears. She also has a great story about a conference in 2009 at which leading scientists presented evidence in a misleading way in order to support the warming orthodoxy. Not exactly lying, but not very professional, ethical, or helpful to a public that wishes to be informed. The link to Polar Bear Science is right there, so I won't bother quoting.

Oct 4, 2014 at 4:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterLloyd R

"Depauperate" is scientific shorthand for "sparse".

Oct 4, 2014 at 7:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterThon Brocket

It's the walrus equivalent of Glastonbury or Woodstock

Oct 4, 2014 at 9:40 AM | Registered Commenterdavidchappell

@ Thon Bracket - clap, clap or +10 if you prefer

Oct 4, 2014 at 9:42 AM | Registered Commenterdavidchappell

walrus expert Tony Fischbach, who can see a opportunity for some 'grant farming ' when he sees it.

Oct 4, 2014 at 10:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterKNR

At Cryosphere Today is a note under the satellite images, that Sea ice concentrations less than 30% are not displayed. On 'Historical Sea Ice Atlas' areas with sea ice below 30% are shown, so why not use these images in addition?

I've set it to Sept. 1982 and Longitude+Latitude to the sea ice area near Point Lay, so that the statistics below ("Ice open and close dates by concentration threshold") show the yearly changes for this area.

I don't know how many sea ice walrusses need, but maybe a range under 30% could have been enough for them.

Oct 4, 2014 at 11:59 AM | Registered Commenterklimahype

According to a lady zoologist, whose name escapes me, this spectacle happens on an annual basis in this area with numbers up to 50,000 and many deaths due to crush injury.

I understand the lady zoologist has studdied these animals for many years so she is probably correct.

This claim follows many other iffy ones in the alarmist pipeline.

Oct 4, 2014 at 12:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

Best people to ask were the Native Eskimo hunters from the 18th century Not possible .Or find if they or the early European frontier settlers explorers left any records or folklore past down through the generations .

Mammal Migration cant be related to changes in sea ice because that doesn't correlate with the "Hockey Stick" must standard regular Arctic Mammal migration patterns and they only just decided to look for it and publicize it.Which case It should have been occurring every year from 1900 onwards and Arctic Mammal sightings follow the temperature record.

This event could just have easily be caused by naturally occurring under sea Increased Volcanic Acidity or Seismic activity disturbing Mammal Migration patterns and suddenly forcing them earlier out the sea onto the nearest land fall .

Forget Sun Spots has anyone correlated the Polar Sea Ice Record against the Undersea Polar Seismic record.
They can detect underground nuclear testing in North Korea and torpedo explosions on the Russian Sub The Kursk
Must be able to get an FOI into the archives of the British Geological Society.

Oct 4, 2014 at 3:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

A simple google of "Walrus Haul Out Historical Record" shows that haul outs are long well documented event from long before any the climate obsessed age we are living in.
Books written in the 1920's talk about this. Pictures from times long past show this.
The climate con-artists and hypesters are reducing the amount of knowledge in the public square in their cynical effort to tie anything at all to their climate gravy train.
Once again we see that the McKibben is spreading lucrative deceptions.

Oct 5, 2014 at 2:20 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

Looking at this sea ice map:
- it seems like current conditions are pretty similar to the 2000's average. However, the 1980s had much more ice in this area (use the "Climate Data Overlay" buttons to compare).

Oct 6, 2014 at 9:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterEspen

To determine whether global warming is taking place one must ascertain whether the globe has warmed. This is done with a temperature record drawn from the readings of a number of well-sited thermometers, and not with some diverse array of inadequate proxies. That is just so much showbiz and misdirection.

Oct 6, 2014 at 12:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Sydney

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