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Where’s walrus? Scientists seek public ‘detectives’ to spot giant animals from space.

Atlantic walruses in the Svalbard Islands, Norway. (Sergio Pitamitz/VWPics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
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Walruses, the large blubbering mammals that can weigh over 3,300 pounds, are hard to miss on Earth. But now scientists are calling on volunteers around the world to help identify and count the animals in thousands of satellite images taken from space.

The mass effort to count walruses is being led by conservation charity the World Wide Fund for Nature alongside the British Antarctic Survey, which are enlisting public “walrus detectives” to sift through thousands of online images to spot the animals, amid fears that climate change is impacting their populations and habitat.

The project aims to protect the animals by carrying out a walrus census of the Atlantic and Laptev populations over the next four years, the 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,” Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at WWF, said in a statement. “It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of the climate and nature emergency, but this project enables individuals to take action,” he added.

The charity said it hoped half a million people worldwide, including young children, would log on to take part in the “Walrus from Space” research project and examine the high-resolution images over the next four years. It will also work with scientists across the Arctic and local Indigenous communities on conservation efforts, it said.

At least 85 percent of the world’s population has been affected by human-induced climate change

The animals are feeling the effects of climate change, the WWF warned, with their Arctic habitat and polar region warming almost three times faster than the rest of the world. The hunkering mammals rely on sea ice to rest, breed and feed — but it is fast melting. Roughly 13 percent of summer sea ice is disappearing per decade, according to the WWF.

If the ice disappears, the animals could be forced to rest on land instead, which means they would need to swim farther and expend more energy to reach their food. They also predominantly give birth on the ice, so congregating on land could lead to dangerous overcrowding with fatal consequences, the conservation charity added.

The hefty animals need their thick fat layer to stay alive amid freezing temperatures, with both the male and females having large tusks for fighting, defense against predators such as polar bears and to haul themselves into the water. The animals can live to be around 40 years old and are easily spooked, being highly susceptible to noise and disturbances, which can trigger stampedes. The use of distant satellites to monitor swaths of hard-to-reach land is also aimed at not disturbing the animals.

“Assessing walrus populations by traditional methods is very difficult, as they live in extremely remote areas. … Satellite images can solve this problem as they can survey huge tracts of coastline,” said Hannah Cubaynes, research associate at the British Antarctic Survey.

“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.”

In addition to melting ice, climate change is also causing the Arctic ocean to become more acidic, as it absorbs carbon dioxide, the WWF said, making it harder for animals that walruses feed off such as clams, sea snails and crabs, to thrive.

A major study published earlier this week concluded that global warming has affected 80 percent of the world’s land area, with events such as crop failures, floods and heat waves allowing scientists to make a solid link between escalating climate extremes and human activities.

Climate change has also topped the political agendas of many world leaders this year, especially in Britain, which is due to host the United Nations’ COP26 climate summit in a few weeks in Glasgow, Scotland, with adapting to “protect communities and natural habitats” against climate change as one of the conference’s four key goals.

WWF said current walrus population figures were hard to know but estimated there were around 25,000 Atlantic and 200,000 Pacific walruses in the wild, the two most common types.

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