Researchers Need Volunteer ‘Walrus Detectives’ to Help Count the Animals in Satellite Images

The project aims to quantify the impact of climate change on the species

Six walruses on top of a rock peaking out of the ocean
Melting sea ice because of climate change forces walruses to congregate on land instead of ice. Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia

Satellites floating in outer space are game-changing tools for studying animals on Earth. Biologists have been able to track the migration of birds, monitor whale populations, and study penguin poop right from their computers. Now, a team of conservationists wants to look for walruses from space, but they'll need the help of volunteer "walrus detectives" to do so, reports Sharon Pruitt-Young for NPR.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and British Antarctic Survey are hoping to recruit half a million eagle-eyed volunteers to help sift through satellite images and count walruses as part of a new research project called "Walrus from Space." The goal is to learn how climate change will impact populations of the Atlantic walrus and walrus from Russia's Laptev Sea, reports Adela Suliman for the Washington Post.

"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," says Hannah Cubaynes, a research associate at British Antarctic Survey, in a press release from WWF. "Satellite images can solve this problem as they can survey huge tracts of coastline."

"However, doing that for all the Atlantic and Laptev walrus will take huge amounts of imagery, 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," she says.

Aspiring "walrus detectives" will watch a tutorial and take a quiz to test their walrus counting and identification skills. Then, they'll look at high-resolution satellite photos of the burly, blubbery mammals from their own computer, according to NPR.

The data they report will shed some light on how climate change is affecting this iconic Arctic species. The WWF says that 13 percent of the Arctic's summer sea ice vanishes each decade. Sea ice loss is especially detrimental for Atlantic walruses, which depend on sea ice to rest and give birth to their young, the Post reports.

Among other effects, melting sea ice brought on by climate change forces walruses to congregate on land instead of ice. Their movements between the ocean and land become longer and more difficult, causing them to expend more precious energy as they go back and forth. Plus, the beaches quickly become overcrowded as herds of hundreds or thousands of walruses smush together, according to WWF. Overcrowding can also lead to stampedes, as walruses are especially skittish animals. When these behemoths get spooked and charge towards the water, others—especially young calves—can get trampled in the panic. 

"Walrus are an iconic species of great cultural significance to the people of the Arctic, but climate change is melting their icy home," Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at WWF, says in the press release. "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."

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