14 October 2021

Share this story

Back to news

WWF and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are seeking the public’s help to search for walruses in thousands of satellite images taken from space, with the aim of learning more about how this polar species will be impacted by climate change.

Walruses 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 each decade.

To help safeguard the future of walruses, more is needed to be known about them. WWF and BAS are working to better understand these Arctic animals, using space satellites to capture thousands of high-resolution images of walruses on more than 25,000km2 of Arctic coastline - an area larger than Wales.

People from around the world can study the satellite pictures online, spot areas where walruses haul out onto land, and then count them. The data collected in this project 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.

Walruses use sea ice for resting and to give birth to their young. As sea ice diminishes, more  are forced to seek refuge on land, congregating for the chance to rest. Overcrowded beaches can have fatal consequences; walruses 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 them 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.

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."
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, much 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 People’s Postcode Lottery players, aims to recruit more than 500,000 citizen scientists over the next five years. 

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."


Image: Jeff Higdon