Scientists ask the public to help count walrus from space

·5 min read
Scientists ask the public to help count walrus from space

Walrus Day on November 24th marked the launch of an initiative that enlists the public in identifying walrus in images from space as part of an ongoing census of the animal.

The project, Walrus from Space, invites members of the public to examine some of the almost 600,000 satellite images taken of coastal areas in the territory of the Atlantic and Laptev walrus populations. Participating “walrus detectives” will contribute to the census of these species that scientists will continue for five years.

One of the major goals of the project, run by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the British Antarctic Survey, is to learn more about how walrus populations are being impacted by climate change.

“This project represents the development of a new technology to conduct cost-effective, non-invasive monitoring of walrus from space,” Brandon Laforest, senior specialist of Arctic species and ecosystems at WWF-Canada, told the Weather Network.

Laforest added, “By collecting thousands of images of known walrus haulouts, we can monitor how many walrus there are at different locations of the year, track the use of these habitats over time, and contribute this data to Inuit-led research projects to better understand how walrus are responding to the climate emergency and increased shipping presence in the Arctic.”

Walrus, like polar bears, depend on sea ice for various aspects of their survival—birthing, molting, access to food supplies—and walrus populations have had to adjust as the extent and duration of the sea ice shrinks in the Arctic.

Walrus Russia Mike Korostelev/Moment/Getty Images
Walrus Russia Mike Korostelev/Moment/Getty Images

Pacific walrus (O. r. divergens) in Chukotka, Russia (Mike Korostelev/Moment/Getty Images)

Though walrus prefer to haul-out on the sea ice, they have always had to rely on beaches, rocky shores, and other land-based haulouts through the summer season. But recently, as confirmed by a 2017 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, walrus have been hauling out on land more frequently and in larger groups.

The result is that walrus often come in closer contact with shipping, industry, and tourism—all of which continue to encroach on the Arctic as the sea ice shrinks—disrupting behaviour and closing off even many land-based haulouts for the notoriously skittish creatures.

It also means that walrus must regularly travel greater and greater distances to their food sources, further straining populations that are flagged on the IUCN’s Red List as “vulnerable” and considered to have a status of Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Past attempts to call attention to the plight of the polar bear’s homelier neighbour have not gone without controversy — in particular the episode in the documentary Our Planet, depicting a scene of overcrowding in the Pacific walrus population on a Russian beach off the Chukchi Sea.

The scene records walrus trampling each other, scaling up a cliffside to escape the mass of bodies, and tumbling over the cliff-face to gruesome deaths, and is characterized as a stark consequence of climate change.

Critics called it sensational and out of context, as walrus falls have been recorded before (though never by the dozens, as in this case) and because clips of a less crowded haulout were interspersed in the video with the teeming beach.

Such controversy could be put to rest by the answers the walrus census will provide.

Acknowledging that “we need to know more” about how walrus are affected by the climate crisis and with an aim to have the public “help scientists spot changes over time,” the project doubles as outreach and research.

Walruses in Russia Staffan Widstrand/The Image Bank Unreleased/Getty Images
Walruses in Russia Staffan Widstrand/The Image Bank Unreleased/Getty Images

Pacific walruses crowd a beach on Arkamchechen Island. | Location: Arkamchechen Island, Chukot Autonomous District, Russia. (Staffan Widstrand/The Image Bank Unreleased/Getty Images)

After a brief training tutorial provided online after a user registers an account, participants are asked to scan images covering a 200m x 200m area — squares of rugged coastline or crystalline icy sea that come to seem, while viewing one after the other, like Arctic-themed abstract art.

The online experience is fitted with a handy zoom feature and image adjustment for sharpness, brightness, and contrast, to assist with the vagaries of walrus identification: walrus haul-out on coasts in groups as tiny as five and as large as 100,000; they might appear bright red or dull grey; they can be mistaken for patches of water, rocks, or rusty barrels — when photographed from space.

It also becomes clear that having participants sort through thousands of images is a way to help scientists eliminate the inadequate photographs — images ruined by cloud cover or some other blockage. (There is even a button to identify a “poor image.”)

But this correspondent, anyway, felt a great responsibility peering into image after image for the tell-tale brownish blotches; and an elated feeling when, on a rocky shore, the blotch was almost certainly walrus. (Though on the leaderboard I am in 5485th place, and dropping.)

The project is one of many recent initiatives to focus on the impacts of climate change on walrus. Others include one by the Chukchi Indigenous peoples to restrict flights over haulouts, coastal management by Indigenous groups in Alaska, and projects led by Inuit researchers in Nunavut and supported by WWF-Canada’s Arctic Species Conservation Fund. “One study is using camera traps and drones to better understand how walrus use their haulouts and how they react to passing ships which are known to disrupt walrus while they are resting,” Laforest explained.

“The other is analyzing walrus for the presence of microplastics which have been shown to accumulate in Arctic marine food webs through the drifting of plastic pollution to the Arctic.”

Yet the Walrus from Space initiative is a rare chance for the public to make a meaningful contribution to climate science.

“In the midst of the climate emergency, and fresh off of COP26, many people are worried about the state of our planet and eager to help but often left wondering what they could actually do to support the conservation of wildlife that live in such faraway places as the Arctic,” Laforest stated.

“We hope to engage half a million people worldwide…harnessing the motivation of desktop conservationists around the world to improve our knowledge of walrus haulouts and work towards the protection of these important habitats.”

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