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Arctic ice: Floes impeding Shell Oil hold promise for Pacific walrus

Jill Burke
Photo by Point Lay Fire Chief Bill Tracey Sr.
Tony Fischbach on the beach with tagged walrus near Pont Lay, Alaska (USGS photo).
Cow with her yearling calf on the beach near Pont Lay, Alaska (USGS photo).
USGS photo
Walrus resting in the evening sun (USGS photo).
USGS photo
Walrus calf looking out from the group at the beach in Northwest Alaska.
USGS photo
Walrus high on the barrier Island beaches (USGS photo).
USGS photo
Dan Monson on the beach with tagged walrus (USGS photo).

A 30-by-12-mile chunk of sea ice floating tens of miles offshore of mainland Alaska in the Chukchi Sea, one of the nation's emerging oil frontiers, may have interrupted exploration in this corner of the Arctic Ocean. But that floe and others are a welcome change for thousands of Pacific walrus, which made long and treacherous journeys to reach Alaska shores in recent autumns.

For the last three years in a row, and in 2007, the massive mammals blanketed beaches, sometimes with fatal consequences. Walrus, which are under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act, can easily weigh a ton. When startled, the herd may evacuate at once, trampling and crushing animals while fleeing. This is believed to have happened in 2009, when more than 100 walrus, mostly juveniles, were found dead after a large haul-out at Icy Cape, on the Arctic Ocean shore southwest of Barrow. And it's thought that walrus have come ashore in increasingly large numbers recently after exhausting themselves in the search for sea ice on which they can rest and launch feeding forays into the rich waters of the Continental Shelf. A 2010 haul-out at Point Lay, not far from Icy Cape, was estimated to contain at least 10,000 animals.

Climate change, and its effect on marine life, has been one consideration in evaluating the survivability of Arctic species, including the polar bear. Some have asked whether the government should take steps to protect them on a warming planet. A decision on the Pacific walrus isn't expected until 2017.

This year’s appearance of an ice floe tens of miles long -- nearly half the size of sprawling Chugach State Park near Anchorage -- has led to a counterintuitive notion among some non-scientists. Across the Arctic, ice retreated more than any other year on record this summer. With receding ice caps and huge swaths of open water persisting into fall, traveling ice chunks aren't the first image to come to mind. A popular -- but incorrect -- impression from the Arctic's big melt is that little ice is present in the northern seas this time of year. Not so. The ice drifting off of Alaska's coast is different from the arctic ice cap. The ice isn't old, and it renews every year. 

'Might be lucky'

"This is a fairly normal pattern," Kathleen Cole, an ice expert with the National Weather Service in Anchorage, explained from her office Wednesday. "This is the ice that the walruses are probably used to hanging out on." 

"It doesn't reflect upon the sea ice minimum. It just means that this year, some of the sea ice that hasn't gone away happens to be in a place walrus can use it," said Bruce Woods, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage. "It appears we might be lucky. It's good for the 'Wallies' and it's good for everyone."

Alaska's frigid temperatures last winter in the Chukchi and Bering Seas prompted thicker ice than usual to form, giving it more staying power against summer temperatures, she said.

It's not known whether the chunk of sea ice that's interfering with Shell's oil exploration some 70 miles off of Alaska's northwestern coast is the same chunk where the walrus are huddled. The largest cluster of the animals is about 80 miles northwest of Barrow, according to real-time mapping data provided by the U.S. Geological Survey. That's north of Shell's oil prospect, but within range of what is believed to be a cluster of ice floes traveling gathered in a jumble stretching east to west.

Staying offshore

"I wouldn't doubt that walruses are using that," said Chad Jay, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geologic Survey. Government scientists had been prepared to monitor an on-shore haul-out similar to those of the last three years and do more tagging. They are now wondering if they’ll get the chance.

"The thinking right now is that by this time they have enough ice offshore," Jay said.

In recent years, substantial numbers of walrus showed up on land during September. Even with the ice floes expected to continue melting until the winter freeze-up, there's enough ice extending to the Chukchi Sea's western boundary that walrus should be able to find someplace to rest and feed, Jay said.

New winter ice should start forming near shore in early October. By November, ice should start to form farther offshore. Shell has a tight timeline when it can search for oil under the sea. It was allowed to begin drilling in July but encountered delays due in part to sea ice. It has already scaled back its operations from drilling five to two exploratory wells. And in the Chukchi, the sea on the western side of Alaska's Arctic, it must wrap up by Sept. 24 – or in less than two weeks. In the Beaufort, the sea on the eastern side, Shell has until the end of October to complete its work.

130,000 walrus migrate

The annual migration brings some 130,000 animals into the Bering Sea to winter in Alaska and Russia. That shouldn’t impact Shell's operations, said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell Alaska. Even if it did, Smith said the company's "adaptive management" allows it to react to what it sees, and adjust as necessary.

If the walrus stay on the ice, it may be a moot point. As Shell's current retreat to wait for the nearby floe to pass demonstrates, ice alone is enough to thwart operations.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com