11/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Alaska's Walruses High and Dry: (1st of 5)

The Pacific Walrus inhabits the regions of the Chukchi Sea around the Bering Strait. Like the Polar Bear, Pacific Walruses are a pagophilic (ice-loving) species whose livelihood and well-being depend on sea ice as a platform from which they dive to the ocean floor of the continental shelf to retrieve the benthic (bottom dwelling) creatures -like clams and mussels- that sustain them.

Walrus calves also use the sea ice as a floating platform on which they rest between dives because they are not strong enough to swim or dive continuously. Except during their seasonal migration, Walruses rarely come ashore. They do not and cannot live on land. Their great adaptation is their ability to dive up to a sea bed up to 600' below the ice on which they spend most of their lives.

In 2007, lack of sea ice drove herds of Pacific Walruses onto the shores of Alaska and Siberia. At Port Schmidt, Russia as many as 4,000 creatures out of a herd of about 30,000 were trampled to death on a rocky shoreline typical of the Bering Strait. That same year many more exhausted calves drowned when the sea ice disappeared under them leaving them to swim to safety far away from shore.

No one knows exactly how many Pacific Walruses are now left in the wild. An aerial survey in 1990 put the entire population at about 201,000 animals. But a recent preliminary estimate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alarmingly counted only about 15,000 animals.

This year, summer sea ice is at its second lowest level since monitoring first began in 1979. Already near Barrow, Alaska 3,500 Pacific Walruses have come ashore. It's not known how many calves have already died at sea this year but the number must be extensive.

The Obama administration is considering whether or not to identify the Pacific Walrus as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The current administration offered this legal protection to the Polar Bear six months ago reversing a decision by the Bush administration to deny legal protection to Polar Bears. The world's Arctic Bear Population has now dwindled by about 25% leaving less than 20,000 animals throughout the entire Pan-arctic region. Unless the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service revises its figures soon, Pacific Walruses now face an even worse cataclysm than our Polar Bears.

I write about the human migrations that will result from future environmental collapse of our continent in my forthcoming book, North American Ark, but most people, I believe, already share a vague sense of some overwhelming danger that hovers slightly beyond the horizon. This sense is sharpened by immanent species extinctions like those of the Polar Bear and Pacific Walrus.

My main point is that climate change is very real and is already causing disastrous, irreversible and extensive environmental change right here in North America. A phenomenon called 'Arctic Acceleration' whereby the polar regions heat up more quickly than earth's more densely populated mid latitudes, means that so far the most extensive climate changes have occurred in the polar regions, far away from our population centers, and out of our limited sphere of awareness. -This will not always be the case.

Thousands of miles to the south, a multi-year drought is drying Mexico and California into Melba toast while wildfires burn the entire length of the west coast from Los Angeles to Sitka. It's time to realize that climate change is here and is not only impacting the unlucky inhabitants of the developing world in places like Bangladesh and Tuvalu, but it is also changing the quality of life and our future choices right here in North America.

Tomorrow I'll write about methane seeps...