Walrus Counting from Space

walrus counting
Populations of Walrus in the Arctic are to be tracked using satellites. Image Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (via flickr)

By Anna Thomas | Contributor

‘Walrus detectives’ are being sought in a new initiative exploring the impact of climate change on Arctic walrus populations. 

Together, the World Wildlife Fund and the British Antarctic Survey have put out a call to assist with data collection for a five-year investigation of walrus populations in the Arctic. Volunteers are being asked to locate and count these massive mammals in thousands of satellite images cataloguing over 25,000 square kilometres of sea ice – an area larger than Wales. 

Categorised by the Red List as ‘at high risk of extinction in the wild’, scientists hope that half a million volunteers scouring the coastline and engaging in ‘walrus counting’ will help shine a light on the impact climate change is having on walrus populations. 

Rising global temperatures have had an irrefutable impact on the Arctic habitat with NASA reporting a 13% decrease in sea ice per decade since 1981. Walruses rely on sea ice for rest and reproduction, therefore the consequence of the decline in their habitat is putting enormous pressure on walrus populations. 

Increasingly, the move off ice and onto land is resulting in walruses being forced to swim ever increasing distances in search of food. This issue is exacerbated by rising CO2 levels leading to ocean acidification, a process threatening the survival of animals such as molluscs and crabs which are a major food source for Arctic walruses.

Additionally, walruses are easily spooked and habitually head to the sea if they feel under threat. Unfortunately, the reduction in exploitable area has led to overcrowding. Consequently, when exhibiting this panic response, walruses may be trampled by others of their species and killed, further reducing their already diminished population. 

Restrictions are in place which ensure that only Native Americans, for whom walruses hold great cultural significance, are permitted to hunt these animals. This jurisdiction was implemented after huge demand for tusks, meat and oil in the 18th and 19th century resulted in the extinction of walruses from several areas around the globe. 

This novel project promises to be a fascinating exploration into the pertinent issue of climate change and its impacts on one of the Arctic’s most incredible creatures. Anyone who is interested in getting involved can do so by signing up via the World Wildlife Fund Website. 

You can help with the ‘walrus counting’ by looking through the satellite images here.

Science and Technology

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