Walrus detectives are being recruited in the fight to save the marine mammals from the reality of the climate crisis. What exactly does this glorious title entail?
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are crowning members of the public “walrus detectives” if they participate in a bit of citizen science, by counting walrus from satellite images taken from space.
The Walrus from Space project aims to take five years with the support of scientists around the Arctic from from both WWF-UK and BAS in collaboration with the Norwegian Polar Institute. The ultimate goal is to take a whole population census of Atlantic and Laptev walrus, in order to accurately explore and understand what the future holds for the species in the midst of climate change.
The Arctic is warming three times faster than the global average, which affects the sea ice walrus rely on — Summer Arctic sea ice is disappearing by 12.6 percent per decade thanks to our increasingly warming planet.
“Walrus are an iconic species of the Arctic. They’re a key species in the Arctic marine ecosystem and they’re of immense significance and importance to Arctic people. But they’re increasingly vulnerable to the implications of climate change. They’re really living on the front line of the climate crisis,” said Rod Downie, Polar chief advisor for the WWF UK in a project video. “What we’re trying to do is better understand walrus, how they’re responding to the climate crisis now and how they might respond in a climate altered future.
“That’s a really difficult thing to do because the Arctic is vast, it’s a difficult place for scientists to work, and we know that walrus can be very easily disturbed by human presence. That’s why we’ve teamed up with a satellite imagery provider, we can cover a vast scope of hundreds of places where walrus haul out across the Arctic. We can capture them through imagery from space. One of the biggest advantages to this project is that it’s completely uninvasive to the walrus themselves.”
The initial images were gathered by the team based at the Ny-Ålesund research station in Svalbard, Norway, where they downloaded very high resolution (VHR) satellite imagery of walrus haul-outs in the Arctic, then verified some counts on the ground through boat visits and drone imagery. More images will be taken over the next five years — and it’s these images the scientists will need help trawling through.
Already, 11,000 people worldwide have become walrus detectives, assisting in completing phase one, which is identifying any signs of walrus presence in the aforementioned images. So far, about 1.5 million satellite images have been searched.
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Phase two, which begins now and is further enlisting public help, will consist of distinguishing walrus from one another and drawing outlines in images.
To take part in this mission, you can register for the Walrus from Space scheme on the WWF website.