Climate Photo of the Week
Thousands of Pacific walrus begin coming ashore on an Alaska Arctic Ocean beach, as their preferred ice floe habitat melts away, in one of the earliest haul outs known.
Thousands of Pacific walrus are coming ashore near Point Lay, NW Arctic coast of Alaska. The huge sea mammals and young began coming up on this barrier island along Kasegaluk Lagoon about August 20, according to local natives. This is one of the earliest known summer haul outs of the walrus along the Alaska coast of the Chukchi Sea, according to wildlife biologists. Walrus coming up on Arctic beaches rather than staying on sea ice has occurred increasingly as Arctic sea ice melts faster and retreats far to the north of walrus feeding areas. According to USGS scientists, walrus, especially females with young, prefer to haul out and rest on remnant sea ice over shallow feeding areas about 100 miles off Alaska in the Chukchi Sea. That ice has disappeared in seven of the past nine years, forcing the animals and their young to swim southeast toward the beaches of NW Alaska, or to the Arctic Russian coast, to haul out. In some years, more than 30,000 animals have been on Alaska beaches, with some loss of life due to crowding and crushing and disease. These photographs, made at 7 pm on August 23, 2015, are apparently the first of this year’s haul out, the earliest known in Alaska since 2007, another very low ice year in the Arctic.
This year’s haul out is occurring only a week before President Obama is due to visit Kotzebue, which is about 200 miles south of the walrus. The President is expected to highlight the reality of climate change — of which loss of sea ice and early and frequent walrus haul outs are major effects. Also, Shell Oil’s recently approved deep oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea is only about 80 miles NW of the walrus current position, and just south of the preferred habitat of the animals, which is now ice free.
Years of observations by scientists, mariners and natives document that until the sea ice began shrinking drastically in 2007, ice remained over shallow Chukchi sea areas where walrus spent the summers offshore. Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) have often left the water to rest on shore in many places across the Arctic shores of Russia and Alaska, but according to scientists it has most often been the males coming on land. The recent huge mixed aggregations of the sea mammals, which grow up to 12 feet long and may weigh up to 2 tons with females about half that weight, pose danger to the young and smaller animals from crushing and the spread of disease. This danger is increased with longer times on land — which is why this year’s early haul out is significant, since in other haul out years the animals have stayed until late September. The herd then moves toward Russia.
Summer sea ice is retreating far north of the shallow continental shelf waters of the Chukchi Sea in U.S. and Russian waters, a condition that did not occur a decade ago, according to USGS scientists. Sea ice is currently far to the north, over very deep water which is not feeding habitat for the walrus, who eat clams, snails, worms, sea cucumbers, and tunicates from the shallow sea floor. Thus the animals have begun retreating back south into the shallow coastal waters and the beach of the barrier island. According to tracking data from about 40 radio tagged walrus of the herd, many animals remain to the north along the retreating ice edge. In other years most of these walrus also came south to haul out, but the herd has also been know to go SW toward Russia. Due to actively warming climate and increasing industrial activity like this year’s Shell Oil drilling, USGS scientists are trying to understand more about the walrus response and ecosystem health.
This photography is partially supported by Alaska Wilderness League.
Administration gives Shell the go ahead for first deep oil drilling into Arctic Ocean floor, even as President Obama sets visit to Alaska because of climate change and issues strong limits on power plant climate pollution.
Shell Oil got what it has wanted and has spent billions on since 2008 when on August 17 the Interior Department gave the multinational petroleum giant final approval to drill deep into the Arctic Ocean floor NW of the Alaska coast. The decision by the Administration came after Shell’s icebreaker Fennica, carrying a required cap for well leaks or blow outs, arrived at the drilling site in the Chukchi Sea, joining two giant drill rigs and more than 25 support ships. The Fennica had been delayed by hull damage which required repair in Portland Oregon — and by a dramatic protest by Greenpeace climbers hanging from a bridge and hundreds of kayaktivists on the river below, blocking the ship’s passage back to the Pacific Ocean for 36 hours.
Approval for Shell means it can use a platform floating on 140 feet of water in the Chukchi Sea to drill into the sea floor to a depth of at least 7,000 to 8,000 feet into what is thought to be a large oil deposit. Environmental and climate change groups have been fighting to delay or stop drilling in the American Arctic, where oil spills which are seen by the Interior Department as inevitable will be very difficult to clean up and threaten a pristine ecosystem home to whales, walrus, seabirds and fish. Oil from this deposit, if it proves commercially viable (even as crude oil prices now reach new lows), will create new carbon pollution and commit Shell and other oil companies to decades more of promoting and selling a fossil fuel which climate change scientists say we must begin phasing out now.
Giving the go-ahead to Shell was to many observers a particularly inexplicable action by the Obama Administration, coming just a day after the President issued a video saying that his upcoming visit to Alaska would focus on the dangers or and damage from climate change. It also follows by only two weeks the issuing of tough CO2 emissions regulationss regulations for electrical generation which will require existing power plants to cut emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Environmental groups seized on this irony. “The president cannot have it both ways,” Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard said. “Announcing a tour of Alaska to highlight climate change days before giving Shell the final approval to drill in the Arctic ocean is deeply hypocritical.” Hillary Clinton entered the controversy, tweeting “The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.” And just days before, speaking up strongly on this issue for the first time, Clinton told a New Hampshire TV interviewer, "I am skeptical about whether we should give the go ahead to drill in the Arctic.” Clinton has promised a strong climate policy if she should become President, which many hope would be a much less fossil fueled direction than the “all of the above” energy plans currently being followed by the Obama Administration
Shell’s 300 foot drilling platform Polar Pioneer, which has been drilling the top part of the well about 80 miles NW of Wainwright Alaska, is accompanied by the drillship Noble Discoverer and a 25-plus ship Arctic drilling fleet. The rig is leased at more than $600,000 a day by Shell. A sister icebreaker to the Fennica, the MSV Nordica, is north of the drill site, where Arctic Ocean pack ice begins. If ice is blown south toward the drill rigs, they may have to move away. but this year’s low ice cover has created mostly open seas in the area. Shell may use only one drill rig at a time, to protect whales and walruses which inhabit and migrate in the drilling area. The rigs will float above the well sites in about 140 feet of water, and are allowed there only between now and the end of September, when winter ice could begin to form. According to its plan, Shell also has placed required emergency oil spill boats and equipment in Wainwright and Kozebue, and in Barrow, from which Shell will fly aerial supply and personnel flights to the rigs.
For coverage of Arctic oil drilling, Shell Oil rigs, protests, and energy policy, see this article and follow links to previous stories and photos.
President Obama and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy issued new “aggressive” CO2 emissions regulations for electrical generation on August 3, which will require "existing power plants to cut emissions 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, an increase from the 30 percent target proposed in the draft regulation.” The limit on greenhouse gas output by existing power plants has been expected, and even in its less stringent draft form has drawn scathing criticism from utilities and many coal-dependent states, who vow to fight the regulations in court. Many power plants are expected to be forced to close. “Climate change is not a problem for another generation, not anymore,” Mr. Obama said in a video about the new rules, which will also require more use of renewable electricity generation, like wind and solar. Coal burning for power is the nation’s largest source of CO2 and is a leading cause of ill health and damage to water and land. But coal has begun to be replaced by natural gas and renewable energy: More people now install solar panels than work in the coal industry, according to the Washington Post.
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