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Walruses Are Beaching Themselves In Record Numbers

In 2014, 35,000 walruses beached themselves on a shore in Point Lay, Alaska. The phenomenon sparked heated debate about why the animals would do this.

Some people pointed out that walruses have always come ashore to rest. But the last four decades have shown walruses coming on land in record numbers and in places where they hadn't before.

Scientists say that the increased numbers of walruses beaching themselves is an effect of global climate change. Walruses turning up in record numbers can put them in closer contact with human industry. For example, ships could disrupt the walruses if they shift their habitat closer to shipping routes.

"If they're more frequently going to be on shore with their young and with the increased human activity in those waters, the risk of a disturbance is increased," Andrea Medeiros, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told PBS News earlier this year.

Walruses are just one type of animal that depends on ice to survive.

Mother polar bear leads her cub across thin ice in Norway. | Shutterstock

For polar bears, too, rising temperatures and melting ice have made hunting seals more and more difficult. Polar bears travel for miles over ice to reach the seals. If their routes melt, they can starve.

The Adélie penguin, which eats krill, a kind of crustacean that lives under the ice, is also at risk of extinction. As the ice melts, the krill have nowhere to live, and so Adélie penguins have a harder time finding food.

Adélie penguins | Shutterstock

"As a whole, the planet has been shedding sea ice at an average annual rate of 13,500 square miles since 1979, the equivalent of losing an area of sea ice larger than the state of Maryland every year," found a study released last year by NASA .

And ice-dwelling animals aren't the only ones feeling the impacts of climate change. Record-breaking droughts and floods in other regions are also connected to the globe's rising temperatures, putting all kinds of animals under threat.

Some animals have already succumbed to climate change-related extinction. The golden toad, which was last seen in 1989 in the mountain forests of Central America, died off because of a climate change-related drought.

The first mammal to go extinct as a result of climate change was a long-tailed, whiskered rat, called the Bramble Cay meloymys, who lived on an island in the Great Barrier Reef. Rising water levels engulfed the tiny island he called home a few years ago.

The beached walruses, the skeletal polar bears - these images are chilling reminders of what is to come, which scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction - an unprecedented loss of life caused by human impacts on the planet. While the thought of mass devastation can be overwhelming, the worst thing people can do is look the other way.