Climate change is having all sorts of bizarre and terrifying consequences in Siberia. Outbreaks of zombie anthrax, massive methane blowouts, that sort of thing. But the latest freak incident—in which hundreds of walruses hauled out on a shoreline, before tumbling off a cliff in terror at the sight of approaching polar bears—reminds us how changes can ripple across the food chain, throwing delicate ecological relationships out of whack.
The incident in question occurred near Ryrkaypiy, a tiny village located on the northern coast of Chukotka bordering the Chukchi Sea. According to a report by the Siberian Times, 5,000 walruses recently hauled out on a shoreline near the village. The walruses were followed by about 20 polar bears, no doubt drawn by the stench of thousands of blubbery, flippered meals.
The arrival of the bears caused the walruses to panic, and many attempted to flee. Per the Siberian Times, “several hundred” fell to their deaths off the cliffs of the nearby Kozhevnikova Cape. The bears, naturally, went to town on the carcasses.
“The situation is alarming,” Viktor Nikiforov, Head of Polar Bear Patrol at World Wildlife Fund Russia, told the Siberian Times in the understatement of the century. “Many [walruses] crashed, falling from a height.”
Kristin Laidre, a polar bear expert at the University of Washington, told Earther that while she has not heard about walruses falling off cliffs very often, “certainly polar bears will be attracted to any prey on shore during the ice-free season, even if it’s close to a village with people.”
Mikhail Stishov, Arctic Biodiversity officer for World Wildlife Fund Russia, told Earther that in the last few years “it’s been a pretty typical situation with huge haul outs on the shore line (due to ice cover reducing). Ryrkaypiy is one of the regular haul out sites.”
A handful of other sites along the Russian and Alaskan Chukchi coast have also started playing host to massive groups of walruses, as the nearshore sea ice they use to access shallow water food sources disappears. For the Inupiat village of Point Lay on Alaska’s North Slope, hundreds to thousands of walruses have become a regular late summer spectacle.
On shore, the animals are reported to be more skittish, stampeding to the water in response to unusual sites and sounds. Some biologists worry these behavioral shifts could threaten the survival of walruses, making them more vulnerable to predators. The recent events in Ryrkaypiy certainly seem to confirm this fear.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists walruses as “data deficient” although the global conservation authority notes that “population declines are expected” in the Pacific subspecies due to climate warming and reduced sea ice cover. (The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently came to a somewhat different determination, when it declined to list the Pacific walrus as endangered.) Polar bears, of course, are also threatened by climate change and the resulting loss of Arctic sea ice, which is forcing them to travel further and expend more energy hunting and fishing.
This year, Arctic sea ice bottomed out in mid-September at its eighth lowest extent since satellite record keeping began. While sea ice has since started to rebound across the Arctic Ocean, levels of ice remain historically low in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, according to NASA.
According to the Siberian Times, the walruses have migrated away from Ryrkaypiy since the haul out horror show. But as of last week, the village remained “surrounded” by about 20 polar bears. One enterprising bear even tried to break into a house through the window. Locals were reported “patrolling and scaring the polar bears away from homes when they approach.”
Stishov did not have an update on whether the polar bears since left Ryrkaypiy in peace. The WWF, he said, has had to concentrate on other villages “with the same situation.”