Scientists head to Arctic to check citizens’ count of walruses from space

Scientists are headed to the Arctic for the final results of a citizen science study that counted walruses remotely.

The British Antarctic Survey and WWF-UK will collaborate with the Norwegian Polar Institute to study the walrus population on Svalbard in Norway. This is to confirm data from satellite images that show the marine mammal count.

It is part of the Walrus From Space project, which was launched in October 2021. Members of the public were invited to take part in a Walrus Census, where they would be detected in thousands of satellite images.

The Arctic people consider Walrus to be an emblematic species with great cultural importance.

Rod Downie (WWF)

The team is hoping to learn more about the effects of climate change on animals. Artic homes are warming three times faster than global averages, and around 13% of the summer sea ice is disappearing each decade.

Satellites have captured high-resolution images of walruses congregating on more than 25,000 square kilometres of Arctic coastline – an area larger than Wales.

Over 11,000 people have reviewed over half a million images. They detected and counted walruses in order to provide scientists with crucial data about their population.

Now, the team will travel by water to walrus haulouts. These are areas where they stop on land to be counted visually or by drones.

They will compare their findings with the numbers from satellite images.

A herd of walruses at Svalbard, Norway’s ice floe (Richard Barrett / WWF UK/PA).

Hannah Cubaynes from the British Antarctic Survey said: “Assessing walrus populations across their whole distribution range by boats or plane is very difficult as they live in extremely remote areas.

“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.

“If the data we collect from fieldwork matches the data collected from satellite, then we’ll know this is a very effective way forward to benefit walrus conservation efforts.”

Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at WWF, said: “Walrus are an iconic species of great cultural significance to the people of the Arctic, but despite being big powerful animals, they are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change which is melting their icy home.

“It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the climate and nature emergency. This project enables individuals to take action to understand a species threatened by the climate crisis, and to help to safeguard their future. ”

Walruses use sea-ice for resting, giving birth and to transport their babies. But as sea ice shrinks further, they have to get on the ground. This is where the beaches can become crowded, posing a danger of trampling and stampedes.

Experts say that they may need to travel further to find food and resting on the land could also make them more dependent on shipping.

Researchers warn that the animals are facing the full reality of the climate crisis while current population trends are not well understood – something the project hopes to address.


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