Nature's cold brutality apparently marked hundreds -- and perhaps thousands -- of seabirds for death following storms that slammed into Western Alaska earlier this month and littered stretches of St. Lawrence Island with the carcasses of crested auklets, murres, ducks and other birds.
Facebook alarmists feared Fukushima radiation was to blame for the deaths that began appearing last week, but an expert said the island between Russia and the Alaska mainland is too far north for that to be possible. And Savoonga residents who walked the beaches to calculate the carnage said they're convinced this fall's powerful winter storms are the real culprit.
Residents in the village of Gambell -- about 40 miles west of Savoonga on the island -- also found dead birds near their village, said Peter Bente, a wildlife biologist with the state Fish and Game.
The expanse of the death zone and the variety of birds -- cormorants and northern fulmars were also found -- suggest storms that recently lashed the region with powerful gusts may be the culprit, said Bente. Winds up to 60 mph and huge waves may have exhausted the seabirds and separated feathers that usually protect them from the Bering Sea's frigid waters.
Still, samples of the carcasses were sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., for testing.
Perry Pungowiyi, a Savoonga hunter, said he counted more than 200 crested auklets on one beach. He also saw gulls and murres, though far fewer of those species. "Elders around town occasionally, when the numbers get so large, they naturally die off," he said.
Dead birds washed up on other beaches near Savoonga as well, he said. The victims were nearly all young. Most were auklets that lacked the bright orange beaks found on adults. They looked healthy and well-fed and had all their plumage, he said.
That's a contrast to the scores of dead and sick ringed seals -- some with open wounds, unusual hair loss and internal ulcers -- that began washing up in summer 2011 in Western Alaska.
Even today, a few seals continue to trickle ashore, biologists said. But the cause of the illness remains a mystery, despite an international effort to identify it. Some people believe radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan in March 2011 is a factor. That's never been proven. It hasn't been disqualified, either.
A lack of radiation sampling in remote regions after the explosion means no one knows how much airborne radiation fell into the Bering Sea ice, or whether seals were in the vicinity of any fallout, said Doug Dasher, a researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
If the seals did ingest radiation, much of it would have been excreted out of the body before the testing of the carcasses that occurred several months after the incident, he said. Such testing found radiation levels similar to those found in the mid 1990s.
St. Lawrence Island is "way too far north for the marine transport to occur right now," Dasher said.
Still, for a community that harvests animals from the Bering Sea, its hard not to think about Fukushima, said Pungowiyi. He said he was getting ready to go seal hunting: Winds blowing in from the north have made for prime seal-hunting conditions.
"It's always on the backs of our minds," he said of the radiation.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com