In September 2013, Arctic sea ice had declined to its sixth-lowest extent on record. I never expected sea-ice science to become controversial. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

I’ve always loved ice. Growing up in Wisconsin, my winters were filled with it. I could skate on it, watch it paint the trees with a crystalline, Doctor Zhivago-like romance and break off icicles for an afternoon treat. Back then, I never considered it controversial. It was just a fact of winter.

But ice has become a subject of contention; especially, sea ice. It is often at the heart of climate change news reports, pitting those who are alarmed at its rapid loss from the planet against those who point out that it seems to be growing. Statistics are usually manipulated to suit the story’s angle. So when an alarming photo taken by Jake Turner on September 14, 2013, of 2,000 to 4,000 walruses hauling out on land—something they normally wouldn’t do at this time of year—was published by the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals Project and subsequently obtained by WWF, it appeared that there was more incontrovertible proof (other than figures) that rapid climate change is truly occurring.

Wildlife behavior is harder to spin than statistics. Will this movement of thousands of animals finally convince naysayers that rapid, largely human-caused climate change is real?

Today’s sea ice is only a tiny fraction of what it was a decade ago. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Erroneous reports on climate change are still common

On September 17, 2013, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that Arctic sea ice had declined this month to its sixth-lowest extent on record. But even in the wake of this announcement, media outlets, such as the British tabloid Daily Mail, stated that sea ice had grown by 60 percent in the Arctic this summer. As another online newspaper, The Guardian points out, however, the Arctic sea ice buildup that Daily Mail referred to is largely irrelevant.

In statistics, a basic law referred to as “regression to the mean” stipulates that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and, paradoxically, if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first. To avoid making wrong inferences, regression toward the mean must be considered when interpreting data. Sea ice will increase or decrease, according to the year. But the general trend in total melt, measured through the decades, shows that the extent of sea ice is rapidly decreasing. In fact, sea ice is only a tiny fraction of what it was a decade ago.

A large-scale walrus haul-out in Alaska

Due to this year’s sea ice decline, a growing number of walruses—up to 4,000 near Point Lay, Alaska, an Inupiat Eskimo community 300 miles southwest of Barrow and 700 miles northwest of Anchorage—are being forced to haul-out on land. Ordinarily at this time of year, the walruses (mostly females and their young) would rest on offshore sea ice in their preferred feeding areas, such as Hanna Shoal in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska. However, due to the recent rapid disappearance of sea ice from these feeding areas, the walruses were forced to swim long distances to reach the Russian and Alaskan shorelines, where conditions are far less favorable and more hazardous than on the ice.

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Walruses use sea ice as platforms on which they can nurse their young and launch their dives for clams and other bottom-dwellers. Each spring, walruses move northward to stay close to these perches as ice melts in the south.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has now limited flights in the area and warned nearby villagers to avoid walrus herds in order to prevent stampedes among the animals. If panicked by an airplane, a human hunter or a polar bear, walruses can stampede for the ocean, crushing pups.

Regarding the walrus photograph taken by Jake Turner, vice president of climate change programs for WWF, Lou Leonard, has said that the dramatic image is worth a thousand charts and graphs, reminding us that climate change is profoundly disrupting life on an epic scale in the fragile Arctic.

A small-scale walrus haul-out in Siberia

Even in Siberia this year, similar walrus behavior has been noted. Sergey Rafanov, head of the WWF Kamchatka-Bering Sea Ecoregional Office, recently reported that in mid-August a female walrus with a cub appeared in Kronotsky Bay. Automatic cameras captured the evidence. Walruses haven’t been observed there since 1852. Traditional walrus grounds are located mainly in Koryakia (north of Kamchatka). Scientists suggest that the two walruses moved so far to the south because of climate change and the extinction of floating ice in their traditional summer habitat.

If statistics don’t work, what will convince deniers that rapid climate change is happening? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

A lone polar bear, struggling in the sea, has long been the standard-bearer for loss of sea ice due to rapid climate change. If the image of a single polar bear can’t make believers out of all of us, perhaps a photo of thousands of walruses hauled-out on land will.

Unlike statistics, do you think that proof of the change in the behavior of hordes of wildlife could finally convince doubters that rapid climate change is real and dangerous for the planet?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,