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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 17, 2009
4:37 PM

CONTACT: Center for Biological Diversity

Shaye Wolf, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 632-5301

Up to 200 Walruses Dead in Alaska as Arctic Sea Ice Reaches Third-lowest Level Recorded

BOULDER, Colo. - September 17 - The Arctic sea ice has reached the third-lowest level ever recorded, and up to 200 walruses, which appear to be mostly new calves and yearlings, have been reported dead near Icy Cape on the north coast of Alaska - further evidence of global warming's brutal transformation of the Arctic. Although the cause of the walruses' death has not been confirmed, young walruses are vulnerable to being trampled to death in stampedes when disappearing sea ice forces walruses to come ashore in large numbers.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center announced today that the Arctic summer sea-ice reached a minimum of 5.10 million square kilometers (1.97 million square miles) on September 12, making 2009 the third-lowest year on record behind 2007 (1.65 million square miles) and 2008 (1.74 million square miles). 

"The deaths of these walruses is another wake-up call that we will lose the Arctic if we continue on our current course," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Every moment that Washington delays in taking strong action on climate change, it robs the walrus, the Arctic, and Arctic people of a future."

The rapid melting of sea ice due to climate change is forcing the Pacific walrus, a well-known resident of the Arctic seas between Alaska and Siberia, into a land-based existence for which it is not adapted. In 2007, the early and extensive disappearance of summer sea ice pushed females and calves onto the Russian and Alaskan coasts in abnormally dense herds. Russian biologists reported that 3,000 to 4,000 walruses, mostly young animals, died in 2007 after being crushed to death in stampedes. Last week, U.S. Geological Survey researchers reported a large herd of 3,500 walruses on shore near Icy Cape, as sea ice disappeared over their foraging grounds.   

The walrus, whose scientific name means "tooth-walking sea horse," uses the ice as a platform from which to forage for clams and mussels in the relatively shallow waters over the continental shelf. Female walruses and their calves follow the sea ice year-round and rely on the safety of ice floes for nursing their calves and as essential resting platforms between foraging bouts, since they cannot continually swim. All Pacific walruses are dependent on sea ice for breeding activities in winter.

On September 8, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would conduct a full status review to determine whether the Pacific walrus warrants the protections of the Endangered Species Act.  The review must be completed by September 10, 2010 under a court-ordered settlement in a case brought by the Center for Biological Diversity to compel a response to its scientific petition to protect the walrus.

The polar bear has also become an icon of global warming as the melting of its sea-ice habitat causes individual bears to drown, starve, and even resort to cannibalism.  The Polar Bear Specialist Group now classifies eight of the world's polar bear populations, including both of Alaska's populations, as declining.  

In May 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the polar bear throughout its range as "threatened," also in response to a petition and lawsuit from the Center.  The Center is currently challenging the failure to list the polar bear as "endangered" based in part on U.S. government studies showing a more than 77-percent chance of extinction for two-thirds of the world's polar bears by mid-century, even under sea-ice projections that underestimate the rate of sea-ice loss.  In 2007, there was less ice in the Arctic than more than half the world's leading climate models project will occur in 2050.

This summer, as the sea ice melted, the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act or ACES. Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and John Kerry, D-Mass., are scheduled to introduce the Senate version of this legislation later this month. 

"The climate bill needs to be significantly strengthened," said Wolf.  "The House legislation would not save the polar bear and the walrus and would give us less than a 50/50 chance of achieving the greenhouse gas reductions scientists say are necessary to head off devastating climate change. We can't flip a coin with the fate of the planet." 

The Center for Biological Diversity is advocating for a bill that sets an overall cap on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of no more than 350 parts per million, consistent with the best available science; works with, rather than replaces, the Clean Air Act, which has successfully reduced air pollution for 40 years and is one of our most powerful tools in fighting global warming; and that eliminates or greatly reduces offsets and other loopholes.

"The Arctic is the Earth's early warning system," said Wolf.  "If Congress and the Obama administration begin deep and rapid greenhouse pollution reductions now, we can still avert some of the most serious global warming impacts.  But the rapid change underway in the Arctic shows that time is running perilously short."

Current sea ice data is available at http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.


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