Become a ‘walrus detective’: role explained as volunteers needed to help count creatures from their own homes

The walruses habitat in the Arctic is being threatened by climate change

People are being asked to become “walrus detectives” and search for the Arctic creatures in satellite images so that they can help with their conservation.

Walruses, which are large marine mammals which live around the Arctic, are being threatened by climate change. It is warming the region much faster than temperatures are rising globally and therefore their habitat is changing rapidly.

To try to help them, conservation charity World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are asking the public to take part in their Walrus From Space project - and they don’t have to leave their homes.

Thousands of walrus images collected in 2021 by space technology and intelligence company Maxar Technologies have been loaded into the citizen science platform. Now armchair wildlife watchers are being asked to examine the pictures and count the number of walruses they see. This will help scientists build up population data on Atlantic and Laptev walruses, which are those living in Russia’s Laptev Sea.

What is the Walrus From Space project?

The five-year project, which is being run with scientists from around the Arctic, aims to deliver a census using satellite imagery and explore what might happen to walruses as a result of the rapid climate change.

The large, social animals, which collect in groups known as herds, huddles or haul-outs, need large areas of shallow water, with lots of shellfish to eat, and nearby spots to rest.

Rod Downie, chief polar adviser for WWF UK, said: “Walrus are big, powerful animals but they are also increasingly vulnerable to the implications of the climate crisis as the sea ice is literally melting out from underneath them. What we are trying to do, with the help of members of the public,  is better understand walrus, how they are being affected by the climate crisis now and how they might respond in a climate altered future. We are doing this to provide evidence to support the conservation of the species across its range.”

Why is the walrus habitat being threatened?

The project has been launched after WWF and BAS science teams visited beaches where the marine mammals rest, in Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic, to calibrate and validate satellite imagery counts of walruses on the ground.

They also saw how real the threat of climate change is for walruses in the region, which is warming faster than elsewhere in the Arctic and may be warming five to seven times faster than the global average, according to them.

Hannah Cubaynes, BAS conservation scientist, said: “The Arctic is a vast and remote region, making it a difficult place for scientists to work, and we know that walrus can be very easily disturbed by human presence. So that is why we have teamed up with Maxar, a satellite imagery and data provider, to collect images of walrus haul-outs before loading them on to the company’s GeoHive platform. We are asking people at home to sign up to help us search for and later count walrus. But you don’t have to travel to the ends of the Earth – you can do it from the comfort of your own home.”

How can I become a walrus detective?

To find out more and take part in the count, people can visit the Walrus from Space project webpage. The counting phase of the Walrus From Space scheme is open from now until Tuesday 7 February.