NBC Reporter Warns Global Warming Now Endangering the Walrus

It seems like every few years there's a new mascot for Team Global Warming. First it was the polar bear, then the Arctic fox and now it's the walrus's turn. On Monday's Today show, Lee Cowan traveled to Point Lay, Alaska to report on how shrinking ice sheets are leaving walruses stranded, in between their feedings, adding: "Much like the polar bear, they can't swim forever." In fact it didn't take long for Cowan to bring up the dreaded specter of global warming as he aired a soundbite of a local tribal president worrying: "I always thought the Arctic would be cold, but scientists tell us that there's global warming going on." Cowan even used another local resident to suggest that if something wasn't done soon, that in 10 years "we won't have any" animals.

The following is a full transcript of the segment as it was aired on the September 20 Today show:

ANN CURRY: Now to an extraordinary wildlife event taking place in northwest Alaska. Tens of thousands of Pacific walrus have crowded onto a beach near a remote village. And biologists think it is because the sea ice melted early, leaving the animals no other place to rest. NBC's Lee Cowan is in Point Lay, Alaska with more on this story. Lee, good morning.

[On screen headline: "Global Warning, Walruses Coming Ashore In Record Numbers"]

LEE COWAN: Good morning, Ann. We're about 300 miles above the Arctic Circle this morning and this is where the walrus has gathered, some 20,000 of them, at one point, over the course of the summer. And Ann, scientists are saying that this is a gathering that is so large and so unusual that scientists are now worried about the walruses' safety. It's the end of summer along the north slope of Alaska and in the tiny Inupiaq village of Point Lay, they wait for the ice to return. The tundra is usually already frozen by now, with snow on the ground and slush ice forming along the Chuckhi Sea. But instead, children are playing in the lagoon, barefoot, innocently oblivious to what it all may mean.

LEO FERRARA, TRIBAL PRESIDENT: I always thought the Arctic would be cold but scientists tell us that there's global warming going on.

COWAN: Do you believe them?

FERRARA: Yeah I believe them.

COWAN: Leo Ferrara, the tribal president here, doesn't mind that the bone-chilling 80-below winter temperatures are taking their time getting here, but he's worried about the villages most recent resident, who need the ice to survive.

COWAN LOOKING THROUGH BINOCULARS: Oh you can see them in the water.

FERRARA: There you go.

COWAN: The Pacific walrus, who normally rest on ice sheets floating out in the sea, have instead hauled out by the thousands at Point Lay to nap, unable to find refuge even on a small piece of sea ice. The scientists say most of it, has melted early.

MARK SERREZE, NATIONAL SNOW ICE DATA CENTER: What this is telling us is that there is continuing pattern of sea ice loss in the Arctic. We may be looking at summers with no sea ice at all, or little to speak of in 20 or perhaps 30 years.

COWAN: In fact a new report this month shows it's the third lowest Arctic sea level in over 30 years. Walruses need that ice to rest on in between feeding, much like the polar bear, they can't swim forever.

ANTHONY FISCHBACH, U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY: We suspect this is going to cost walruses more to make a living, when they have to commute from a coastal resting spot out to the foraging grounds, than it would cost them simply to roll of the ice and feed directly beneath them.

COWAN: But that's not the only worry. With upwards of 20,000 crammed so tightly together, easily startled mothers can often stampede, crushing newborn calves as they hurtle toward the water to safety.

BILL TRACEY, POINT LAY FIRE CHIEF: Anything can spook them from a polar bear, a brown bear, a dog, a man, a boat going by, an airplane going over.

COWAN: Bill Tracey is Point Lay's fire chief. Last year he says, not far away, more than 100 walruses trampled each other to death. So until the ice comes back, strict limits are now in place.

This is about as close as we can legally get to the walruses without disturbing them. From this point forward, the only people allowed in are researchers. There's even a no fly zone over the beach, something residents here are happy to see.

SOPHIE HENRY: What we have now, we have to protect what's there, because maybe in the next 10 years we won't have any.

COWAN: A way after life for this village, a way life for the walrus, both trying to adapt to an Arctic changing faster than many expected.

HENRY: The whales, the walrus, the Belugas, you know they, they live with the ice. And if it, if that all is gone, does that mean all the animals are gone too?

CURRY: NBC's Lee Cowan.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.