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Can you spot a walrus from space? How to help British Antarctic Survey and WWF with citizen science project



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Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey and wildlife charity WWF have teamed up to ask for the public’s help to search for walrus in thousands of satellite images taken from space.

A three-month old Atlantic walrus calf finds refuge on her mother's back in Canada. Picture: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada
A three-month old Atlantic walrus calf finds refuge on her mother's back in Canada. Picture: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

It is hoped half a million people worldwide will join the Walrus from Space research project to help scientists learn about how the animal will be impacted by the climate crisis.

The census of Atlantic walrus and walrus from the Laptev Sea will utilise satellite images provided by space and intelligence company Maxar Technologies’ DigitalGlobe.

Wildlife spotters will be asked to browse the images online, spot areas where walrus haul out onto land, and then count them.

Hannah Cubaynes, wildlife from space research associate at British Antarctic Survey, said: “Assessing walrus populations by traditional methods is very difficult as they live in extremely remote areas, spend much of their time on the sea ice and move around a lot. Satellite images can solve this problem as they can survey huge tracts of coastline to assess where walrus are and help us count the ones that we find.

“However, doing that for all the Atlantic and Laptev walrus will take huge amounts of imagery, much too much for a single scientist or small team, so we need help from thousands of citizen scientists to help us learn more about this iconic animal.”

A herd of Atlantic walrus on an ice floe, Norway. Picture: Richard Barrett / WWF-UK
A herd of Atlantic walrus on an ice floe, Norway. Picture: Richard Barrett / WWF-UK

The Arctic home of the walrus is warming almost three times faster than the rest of the world and roughly 13 per cent of summer sea ice is disappearing per decade.

Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at WWF, said: “Walrus are an iconic species of great cultural significance to the people of the Arctic, but climate change is melting their icy home. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the climate and nature emergency, but this project enables individuals to take action to understand a species threatened by the climate crisis, and to help to safeguard their future.

Example of a satellite image of a Laptev walrus haul-out. From space they look like small or large groups of reddish or pale brown shapes that can be next to each other or a few meters apart. This satellite image is 2.5 km². On the Walrus from Space platform (the Geohive app) users will view images cropped to 0.04 km². Image: Satellite imagery 2021 Maxar Technologies
Example of a satellite image of a Laptev walrus haul-out. From space they look like small or large groups of reddish or pale brown shapes that can be next to each other or a few meters apart. This satellite image is 2.5 km². On the Walrus from Space platform (the Geohive app) users will view images cropped to 0.04 km². Image: Satellite imagery 2021 Maxar Technologies

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay there; the climate crisis is a global problem, bigger than any person, species or region. Ahead of hosting this year’s global climate summit, the UK must raise its ambition and keep all of its climate promises – for the sake of the walrus, and the world.”

It is not easy assessing marine mammals in such a vast, remote and largely inaccessible place, so previous population estimates of walrus are based on the best data and knowledge available.

This project will build on the knowledge of indigenous communities using thousands of high-resolution images of walrus congregated across more than 25,000km2 of Arctic coastline – an area larger than Wales.

Atlantic walrus, Norway. Picture: Wim van Passel / WWF
Atlantic walrus, Norway. Picture: Wim van Passel / WWF

The results will help inform decisions on conservation efforts for the species.

Walrus use sea ice for resting and to give birth. But as it reduces, more of them are forced to seek refuge on land and overcrowded beaches can have fatal consequences. Walrus are easily scared and can stampede towards water, trampling one another.

It is thought resting on land rather than sea ice may also force them to swim further and expend more energy to reach their food, which is also affected by global warming and the acidification of the ocean.

Laptev walrus haul-out, Russia Picture: Alexei Ebel / WWF-Canon
Laptev walrus haul-out, Russia Picture: Alexei Ebel / WWF-Canon

Other disturbances affecting them include shipping traffic and industrial development as the loss of sea ice makes the Arctic more accessible.

The WWF has a partnership with the Scouts and earlier this year the walrus-spotting platform was tested by Cub Scouts.

The five-year project is supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, as well as RBC Tech For Nature and WWF supporters.

One of them, Imogen Scullard, 9, said: “I love learning about the planet and how it works. We need to protect it from climate change. We are helping the planet by doing the walrus count with space satellites, which is really cool. It was a hard thing to do but we stuck at it.”

You can register to take part at wwf.org.uk/walrusfromspace, where you will be guided through a training module before joining the walrus census.

A WorldView-3 satellite used for taking satellite imagery of walrus haul-outs for the Walrus from Space project. Image: 2020 Maxar Technologies
A WorldView-3 satellite used for taking satellite imagery of walrus haul-outs for the Walrus from Space project. Image: 2020 Maxar Technologies

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