Imagine helping to fight climate change from hundreds of kilometres above Earth. The Walrus from Space project
The project is a WWF initiative in partnership with the British Antarctic Survey. It aims to monitor the entire Atlantic and Laptev walrus population through high-resolution satellite imagery over the course of five years.
The public can participate by registering to become “walrus detectives", spending as few as 30 minutes combing through satellite images for sightings of the sea mammals.
Walrus from Space will help scientists better understand how climate change is threatening the walrus population across a large part of the Arctic.
The walrus is a key species in the Arctic marine ecosystem and depends on sea ice for much of its life cycle, experts say. They use it for breeding, giving birth, nurturing their young, resting and sleeping.
“It's a really critical part of their life functions – they depend upon sea ice," says Rod Downie, chief polar adviser for WWF-UK and one of the architects of the Walrus from Space project.
“As that sea ice is diminishing, we need to better understand what's going to happen to the walrus. What's their fate?"
A staggering 95 percent of the oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic has already melted into the ocean as a result of warming temperatures, according to the WWF. Summer sea ice is now vanishing at a rate of more than 13 percent per decade, with temperatures in the Arctic rising about three times as fast as any other part of the planet. Scientists now estimate summers in the Arctic could be completely ice-free by 2040 if greenhouse gas emissions rise unchecked.
The depletion of the sea ice is having devastating consequences, not only for the wildlife that depend on it, but also climate issues such as increasingly volatile global weather patterns.
Observations from space
To unobtrusively monitor how the melting sea ice is altering the Arctic ecosystem, Downie thought the walrus would make an ideal candidate to study from space.
They are large enough that satellite imagery taken at a resolution of 30 to 50 centimetres per pixel can capture them with clarity. When walrus congregate in great numbers (a "haulout"), they appear as a large patch of brown in satellite images. In these instances area/density estimates are used to calculate the number of individuals. However, in the case of smaller haulouts, you can actually count each walrus. The detailed satellite images will also help identify abandoned haulout sites and their interactions with other species.
The Atlantic and Laptev walrus habitat stretches from Canada to Greenland, across the Norwegian Arctic and into parts of the western Russian coastline. The map of the walrus distribution (below) was made possible through local and Indigenous knowledge and scientific literature.
Areas of the coast where walrus come ashore encompass an area larger than Wales, requiring more than 600,000 images which cover 200 square metres each. These images allow scientists to quickly examine vast areas – including places that would be difficult and time-consuming to access on the ground. Photos taken in 2021 showed nearly 97 percent of the area.
“Imagine trying to cover all that area with people, small boats or aircraft," says Downie.
Scientists have increasingly observed walrus coming ashore because of the absence of sea ice, in some instances gathering in very large numbers. Unlike sea ice, however, which is constantly moving through the water, staying in one place on a beach means walrus can quickly deplete their local food sources. The lost sea ice has also meant more industrial development and more shipping traffic, which can disturb the sea animals. These are but two of many reasons why sea ice is so critical to the preservation of walrus populations.
Engaging the public
The ambitious project has a total budget of £1.2 million spread over five years and is funded in part by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Tech for Nature. This is a global, multi-year, C$100 million commitment by the bank to support new ideas, technologies and partnerships aimed at addressing complex environmental challenges.
The RBC initiative currently supports more than 100 different partner organisations and selected Walrus from Space because of its place on the frontline of the climate crisis.
“Walrus are an important indicator species. They are intrinsically linked to the health of the surrounding ecosystem and are culturally important to many indigenous Arctic populations," says Susan Blanchard, senior manager, Social Impact - RBC Tech for Nature.
“The research being conducted by WWF UK will help fill the knowledge gaps that exist around the population trends of the Atlantic and Laptev walrus species, and help inform broader conservation measures on both local and global scales."
The citizen-science component of the project enhanced the project's appeal, she adds. The bank hopes to engage at least 1,000 of its own employees too.
Launched in October 2021, the public has already identified walrus haulouts in 126 of 541,000 satellite image chips taken in 2020. Each photo was reviewed at least four times to ensure accuracy – with the actual average rising to 13 to 14 times.
Photos of walrus sightings are reviewed again by the public in phase two – this time to count how many individual walrus can be spotted. The photos are counted at least nine times and this cycle of analysis will repeat each year until the end of 2024.
“This data will help researchers better understand walrus abundance, habitat preference and ecology in order to secure viable populations in a climate-altered future," Blanchard says.
In the project's first year, more than 21,100 users registered, with 13,420 of them completing the short, 20-minute training course. Among those, nearly 12,000 contributed to the walrus search. The majority are based in the UK, followed by the United States and the Netherlands. But they also come from places as remote as Easter Island, Downie says. Participants, so far, are evenly spread across different age groups and nearly 60 percent identify as female.
Walrus, beluga whales and polar bears
With so many eyes combing through the images, other species have also been spotted along the way.
“This is an interesting aspect of the project. Every now and again, people are looking for walrus and they'll spot a beluga whale, or even a polar bear," Downie says. As a result, the project has added a new button to the platform that will allow the public to report sightings of other wildlife.
It would have been easy to hand over the task to professional counters, says Downie, but it was important to him and his team to engage supporters and the broader public.
“It's very easy to feel so powerless about climate change. It's like, what can I do as an individual?" he says.
“Well, here's a really simple and fun thing you can do that contributes towards science to better understand how wildlife is going to respond to the climate crisis, how it's responding now, and how it might respond in the future."