14 October 2021
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Walrus from Space: animal spotters wanted to join mass survey
Scientists hope thousands will log on to search for walrus as they face the threat of the climate crisis
WWF and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are seeking the public’s help to search for walrus in thousands of satellite images taken from space, with the aim of learning more about how walrus will be impacted by the climate crisis. It’s hoped half a million people worldwide will join the new ‘Walrus from Space’ research project, a census of Atlantic walrus and walrus from the Laptev Sea, using satellite images provided by space and intelligence company Maxar Technologies’ DigitalGlobe.
Walrus are facing the reality of the climate crisis: their Arctic home is warming almost three times faster than the rest of the world and roughly 13% of summer sea ice is disappearing per decade.
To help safeguard the future of the walrus, we need to know more about them. WWF and BAS are working to better understand these Arctic animals, using space satellites to capture thousands of high-resolution images of walrus congregated on more than 25,000km2 of Arctic coastline - an area larger than Wales.
From the comfort of their own homes, aspiring conservationists around the world can study the satellite pictures online, spot areas where walrus haul out onto land, and then count them. The data collected in this census of Atlantic and Laptev walrus will give scientists a clearer picture of how each population is doing – without disturbing the animals. The data will also help inform management decisions aimed at conservation efforts for the species.
Walrus use sea ice for resting and to give birth to their young. As sea ice diminishes, more walrus are forced to seek refuge on land, congregating for the chance to rest. Overcrowded beaches can have fatal consequences; walrus are easily frightened, and when spooked they stampede towards the water, trampling one another in their panic. Resting on land (as opposed to sea ice) may also force walrus to swim further and expend more energy to reach their food - food which in turn is being negatively impacted by the warming and acidification of the ocean.
In addition walrus can also be disturbed by shipping traffic and industrial development as the loss of sea ice makes the Arctic more accessible. Walrus are almost certainly going to be impacted by the climate crisis, which could result in significant population declines.
Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at WWF, said:
“Walrus are an iconic species of great cultural significance to the people of the Arctic, but climate change is melting their icy home. 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.
“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay there; the climate crisis is a global problem, bigger than any person, species or region. Ahead of hosting this year’s global climate summit, the UK must raise its ambition and keep all of its climate promises - for the sake of the walrus, and the world.”
Previous population estimates are based upon the best data and knowledge available, but there are challenges associated with working with marine mammals in such a vast, remote and largely inaccessible place. This project will build upon the knowledge of Indigenous communities, using satellite technology to provide an up-to-date count of Atlantic and Laptev walrus populations.
Hannah Cubaynes, wildlife from space research associate at British Antarctic Survey, said:
“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, 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.
“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.”
Earlier this year Cub Scouts from across the UK became walrus spotters to test the platform ahead of its public release. The Scouts have been a partner of WWF since the early 1970s, and over 57 million scouts globally are engaged in environmental projects.
Cub Scout Imogen Scullard, age 9, said:
“I love learning about the planet and how it works. We need to protect it from climate change. We are helping the planet by doing the walrus count with space satellites, which is really cool. It was a hard thing to do but we stuck at it”
The ‘Walrus From Space’ project, which is supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, as well as RBC Tech For Nature and WWF supporters, aims to recruit more than 500,000 citizen scientists over the next five years. Over the course of the project counting methods will be continually refined and improved as data is gathered.
Laura Chow, head of charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said:
"We’re delighted that players’ support is bringing this fantastic project to life. We encourage everyone to get involved in finding walrus so they can play a part in helping us better understand the effects of climate change on this species and their ecosystem.
“Players of People’s Postcode Lottery are supporting this project as part of our Postcode Climate Challenge initiative, which is providing 12 charities with an additional £24 million for projects tackling climate change this year.”
Aspiring conservationists can help protect the species by going to wwf.org.uk/walrusfromspace where they can register to participate, and then be guided through a training module before joining the walrus census.
NOTES TO EDITORS
- Walrus (as a whole species) are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Atlantic Walrus are listed as Near Threatened. There may be > 225,000 walrus ( likely more than 200,000 Pacific Walrus, likely more than 25,000 Atlantic walrus and ~5000 walrus in the Laptev Sea)
- There are two to three subspecies of walrus, the Atlantic walrus, the Pacific walrus and the disputed Laptev walrus. As their names suggest, they are found in different parts of the Arctic – the North Atlantic and North Pacific, and Laptev sea respectively. Laptev walrus are a special population, likely most closely related to Pacific walrus, and are found only in the Laptev Sea in Russia. The scope of the project is currently only looking at Atlantic and Laptev walrus.
- They can live up to 40 years and weigh over 1.5 tonnes. Walrus have a layer of fat (or 'blubber') of 5-7cm to help keep them warm.
- The scientific name of the walrus, Odobenus rosmarus, means 'tooth walking sea horse'.
- Both male and female walrus have large tusks, which are used for fighting other walrus, defend against predators, and to help 'haul out' on ice. Walrus tusks are really modified canines - they can grow up to 1 metre long and weigh 5kg in large males.
- Walrus mainly eat clams and other invertebrates found on the sea floor such as worms, snails, soft shell crabs, shrimp and sea cucumbers. Some walrus may prey on seals, small whales and even seabirds. Walrus have many whiskers on their snout, which are highly sensitive, and help them find food on the sea floor.
- Walrus use their tusks as a sledge when feeding on the ocean floor, foraging mainly for clams. Walrus can eat more than 50 clams in a single dive.
- Predators of the walrus include polar bears and orcas.
- A walrus haul out is a piece of ice or land, such as ice floes and beaches, where walrus go to rest in between dives, to molt and to give birth. Walrus generally haul-out on snow-covered ice floes rather than on land. Walrus have always used land-based haul-outs for parts of the summer, when sea ice as at a minimum
- In recent years, walrus have begun to haul out on land in larger groups and go to sea to forage from there, because the sea ice has retreated to waters that are too deep for them to feed.
WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) is one of the world’s largest independent conservation organisations, active in nearly 100 countries. Our supporters – more than five million of them – are helping us to restore nature and to tackle the main causes of nature’s decline, particularly the food system and climate change. We’re fighting to ensure a world with thriving habitats and species, and to change hearts and minds so it becomes unacceptable to overuse our planet’s resources.
WWF. For your world.
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Find out more about our work, past and present at wwf.org.uk
About British Antarctic Survey (BAS),
The British Antarctic Survey are an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that uses the Polar Regions to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet. Through its extensive logistic capability and know how BAS facilitates access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation. Numerous national and international collaborations, combined with an excellent infrastructure help sustain a world leading position for the UK in Antarctic affairs. For more information visit www.bas.ac.uk @basnews