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Researchers are asking for volunteer 'walrus detectives' to spot walruses from space

A walrus pictured at the Pairi Daiza animal park in Brugelette, Belgium.
John Thys
AFP via Getty Images
A walrus pictured at the Pairi Daiza animal park in Brugelette, Belgium.

If you're concerned about the effect of climate change on the Arctic's wildlife now you have a way to get involved from your own home by signing up to be what the World Wildlife Fund has described as a "walrus detective."

The WWF and British Antarctic Survey are hoping to track the number of Atlantic and Laptev walruses over five years to find out just how much climate change may be affecting the population, and they're hoping for the public's help. Those who participate in the Walrus From Space project will be tasked with one simple objective: spotting walruses from space.

Satellites will routinely capture photos across Russia, Greenland, Norway and Canada over five years and those photos will then be made available to walrus detectives, who can use their computer to search the high resolution pics for walruses. The public's detective work will be aiding researchers, as well as Artic Indigenous communities and other locals who are working toward the same goal, the WWF said.

All it takes to be a walrus detective is to watch a tutorial online and then take a test that gauges your "walrus identifying" prowess. And kids as young as 10 years old can sign up to help (with adult supervision), the WWF said. The organization hopes that half a million people will join the Walrus From Space effort.

"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 emailed to NPR. "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."

Climate change has placed the walrus population in harm's way. The Arctic, where these walruses live, is heating up at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the planet, according to the British Antarctic Survey. (As recently as 2014, it was only warming twice as fast.)

One factor to blame is melting snow that disturbs an essential cycle: typically, the sun's light reflects off of the snow, sending that heat back into space and keeping the ground cool, but when the snow and ice melts instead, revealing the ground underneath, that reflecting doesn't happen and the ground begins to instead absorb the heat from the sun, NPR previously reported.

Every decade, around 13% of summer sea ice melts, according to the WWF. With that ice melting, walrus' lives have been made increasingly difficult. Instead of being able to rest on the sea ice (where they also typically give birth to their young), they have to do so on land, which means a longer journey for food and restricted travel overall, the WWF says. Their food itself is also affected, because climate change has made it harder for the marine life they eat, like sea snails, to survive.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sharon Pruitt-Young