SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Alaskan hunters experience global warming first hand
Anchorage Daily News


August 20, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The Arctic sea ice in Northwest Alaska is usually within 30 miles of Wainwright in August. Today it's more than 300 miles away, much farther than it's ever been.

Wainwright hunters have usually killed more than 100 walruses by this time in the season. They've bagged fewer than 20 this year.

The ice left Wainwright so quickly in June -- a month earlier than usual -- that Oliver Peetook didn't have the chance to get a walrus. The father of four usually fills the freezer with three or four of them, like most Wainwright families, butchering the animals on the ice where they've been shot.

"We were worried," he said.

All over the world experts are talking about global warming. In the village of 600 Inupiat west of Barrow, they're living it.

The ice capping the globe is vanishing at a record pace this summer, fueled partly by two weeks of heat beginning in late June when Kansas-sized chunks disappeared daily, according to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The Arctic ice sheet has shrunk to its smallest size in recorded history, based on measurements that go back 100 years, said data center scientist Ted Scambos. The disappearing ice has been especially dramatic above Siberia and Northwest Alaska.

In Wainwright last week, word spread over the village VHF radio of about 20 walruses swimming nearby. They may have been part of a group gathered on shore not far from the village, which usually doesn't happen until fall, Peetook said.

"I guess they have no ice to go to so they are hauling out on the beach."

Peetook grabbed his skiff, gun -- and a small seal harpoon rigged with a float, which he doesn't need during a normal ice hunt. The hunters shot four animals about five miles from home, he said.

He caught a young male, the first walrus he'd ever shot while it was in the water.

The hunters tied the heavy animals to the boats and towed them to Wainwright. Adult walruses weigh more than a ton, so several men muscled the animals onto the beach for butchering.

"That's the first time I get some like that," Peetook said.

The walruses have probably abandoned the ice sheet for the year, said Tony Fischbach with the U.S. Geological Survey. Right now, the ice is sitting on top of at least 1,500 feet of water, far too deep for walruses to reach the sea floor to eat.

The vast stretches of open water endanger pups. -

"Adult walrus can swim 400 nautical miles, but I doubt offspring can," Fischbach said.

Walruses, especially females, usually hunt from the ice, eating clams and other foods on the sea bottom as the ice moves over new feeding grounds. There are more than 200,000 Pacific walruses, biologists estimate. -

Satellite images of walruses tagged in June with tracking devices about 40 miles northwest of Barrow suggest they generally stayed in that area as long as possible. Some clung to "tiny wisps of ice" into late July as the pack ice retreated. The wisps are probably gone by now, he said this week.


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