Page 3.14

There’s been a lot of justified hullabaloo recently over the fate of Arctic polar bears. You see, they’re drowning in record numbers as their habitat, in an eyeblink, drastically changes from the ice floes they’ve known for thousands of years to open ocean. The only possible good news taken this terrible situation is that they might be added to the US federal government’s endangered species list, which would theoretically obligate the government to enforce reduction of US CO2 emissions to preserve the polar bear habitat. But that’s wishful thinking. If worldwide uproar and scientific consensus about global warming can’t get the US to address the issue, will polar bears?

The plight of the polar bear is also useful, of course, in attracting people who need something cuter than a melting glacier or vanishing amphibians to make them care about the climate change. Now, new findings from Arctic are broadening global warming’s “cute appeal.”


What you’re looking at is one of nine walrus calves a research team discovered swimming aimlessly in deep water, hopelessly distant from any restful sea ice or solid land. Most likely, they all drowned or starved to death not long after the photos were taken. It’s unknown what happened to their mothers, upon which the calves are entirely dependent for up to two years after birth. According to the press release, this many abandoned calves so far from shore is entirely unprecedented.

From the press release:

“We were on a station for 24 hours, and the calves would be swimming around us crying. We couldn’t rescue them,” said Carin Ashjian, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a member of the research team.

“If walruses and other ice-associated marine mammals cannot adapt to caring for their young in shallow waters without sea-ice available as a resting platform between dives to the sea floor, a significant population decline of this species could occur,” the research team wrote. The lead author of the study is Lee W. Cooper, a biogeochemist at the University of Tennessee.

It’s interesting to note that, though the scientists were in the Arctic to measure the impact of global warming on the oceanic ecosystem, their discovery of the abandoned walrus calves was totally incidental to what appears to be their real research: the measurement of plankton types and concentrations along with sea temperatures. These findings are a bombshell on their own. Unearthed from their burial in the press release’s tenth paragraph:

The researchers measured a mass of water as warm as 44°F (7°C) moving onto parts of the shelf from the Bering Sea to the south in 2004. This warm-water intrusion was more than six degrees higher than temperatures at the same time and location in 2002. The warmer water apparently caused seasonal sea ice to melt rapidly over the shallow continental shelf and retreat to deep water over the Arctic Ocean basins, where the water remained colder.

Obviously, this is a case of incidental evidence dovetailing nicely with the research data. The link is pretty clear: The abnormally warm water has melted the sea ice the walruses normally use to rest themselves and raise their young, resulting in the heartbreaking photos and testimonies of the researchers which undoubtedly adds a compelling poignancy to their results. The question is: Is it a good thing that their actual research data are taking a backseat to their chance encounter with abandoned walrus calves?

I’d love to know what you think.


  1. #1 Brian S.
    April 21, 2006

    Seems like what they’ve found is of potential scientific importance, so it’s okay to spend some time on it. I doubt their funders would be pleased if they abandoned their original mission, but they haven’t done that.

    Unfortunately, I doubt listing polar bears under the ESA would have many legal ramifications on US CO2 emissions. A similar argument could be made for the West Coast salmonids that have been listed for years, but with little effect. Might be somewhat stronger argument for polar bears than salmonids, but it’s still tough to go from the science to legal requirements with teeth. They’ll probably just stop the token amount of hunting by Native Alaskans.

    There’s a section of the ESA I haven’t looked at for many years dealing with major governmental construction projects – it might have some value there.