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Arctic Walrus on Thin Ice
08/26/2010 | Marilyn Sigman, Alaska SeaGrant/MAP
Tags: Walrus, Climate Change, Changing Arctic Sea Ice, Alaska Native Perspectives on Climate Change, Traditional Knowledge, Bering Sea, Arctic Ocean

Walrus, walrus hunters, and the study of sea ice is the focus of an August 10, 2010, NY Times Climate Wire article Another Symbol of the Arctic's Complex Ecosystem Finds Itself on Thin Ice by Lauren Morello that portrays the long-term dependence of Yupik and Inupiat hunters on the Pacific walrus for the meat, bone tools, skins to cover boats, gutskin clothing, clothing in the context of a rapidly-warming Arctic which is changing the icescape upon which both walruses and people depend. The behavior of sea ice is no longer predictable.

For Alaska's indigenous hunters, whose lives meld modern conveniences with their traditional subsistence culture, the change threatens a way of life. "The elders have been coming to me and saying a lot of the old ways -- their many years of observations of how ice was forming and moved, which made them extremely accurate local forecasters -- all of a sudden, those old traditional knowledge ways weren't working, and aren't working," said Gary Hufford, regional scientist for the National Weather Service's Alaska region.

On St. Lawrence Island, just south of the Bering Strait, for example, elders report that the ice's character has changed. "It's thinner than people are used to seeing, and there's less old, heavy ice," said Hajo Eicken, a University of Alaska sea ice scientist who has worked closely with native communities to understand those changes. "There's less ice to melt in the spring, which means it actually can retreat much more quickly."

At the heart of the story is the walrus. As sea ice patterns have shifted, the animals have scrambled to adapt. Scientists have been surprised to observe thousands of walruses hauled out on beaches in Russia and Alaska, a scene that was repeated in 2007 and 2009.

In addition, the duration of sea ice is becoming dramatically shortened. The ice is forming about six weeks later in the fall and melting about six weeks earlier in the spring which takes three months off the ice season. For hunters, the changes have made venturing out on ice or in small hunting boats more dangerous and more expensive with less chance of success.

The article features the Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook (SIWO) project, which is adding to an emerging body of science that seeks to inform Western science using traditional knowledge. Unlike the traditional model of scientific research, in which researchers arrive at a conclusion and communicate it to the public, the Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook was designed to incorporate detailed observations from expert hunters in participating Native communities, tapping generations of wisdom gleaned by those living closest to the ice.

See the full article for more about the impact of melting Arctic ice on walrus, walrus hunters, and Alaska Native communities, and the SIWO project. SIWO reports are posted weekly on the Study of Arctic Environmental Change (SEARCH) website which posts monthly sea ice outlook reports and also has a webpage of resources for educators to teach about the outlook for sea ice.

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