All you can do is laugh, really. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been pushing for years to position itself as a valid scientific authority but the kinds of projects they get involved with generally have little to do with real science and more to do with promoting their brand and its doomsday climate change narrative. The most recent example is a ‘Count walrus from space‘ ploy that is enlisting elementary school aged children and other members of the public to count Atlantic walrus from satellite photos, which the Washington Post obligingly promoted last week (proving the WWF massive free publicity).
WWF roped someone from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) into the four year scheme, which makes it seem like legitimate, real science. With this initiative, the WWF are strongly pushing a story that walrus throughout the Arctic are threatened by climate change due to melting Arctic sea ice. They have been doing this actively since 2015, as seen with their collaboration with Netflix and Sir David Attenborough in the ‘Our Planet’ Pacific walrus extravaganza that blew up into a massive controversy. I have more to say on that in my next book, whose publication is unfortunately behind schedule but will hopefully be out soon.
The first problem with this plan is that evidence is lacking to support the claim that walrus have been harmed by recent declines in sea ice. Despite current low numbers, Atlantic walrus are more abundant today than they were 100 years ago, after decades of commercial hunting reduced populations to near extinction levels (Born et al. 1995; Wiig et al. 2014).
The second problem is that walrus at land haulouts in summer or fall are notoriously difficult for professional scientists to count even from aerial photographs. The idea that children as young as nine years old can contribute to generating a more accurate count from satellite images is ludicrous.
Count walrus from space plan
From the BAS/WWF press release (14 October 2021):
Hannah Cubaynes, wildlife from space research associate at British Antarctic Survey, says:
“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.”
Rod Downie, chief polar adviser at WWF, says:
“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.
Earlier this year Cub Scouts from across the UK became walrus spotters to test the platform ahead of its public release.
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.”
So far, young rersearcher Hannah Cubaynes has only counted whales from satellite images (a far, far easier task). Claims the organizers have ‘tested the platform’ mean nothing since the standard method of counting walrus has proven entirely unsatisfactory. How on earth would we know if this satellite method is any better? What would ‘success’ even look like?
Difficulties counting walrus
The biggest problem with the ‘traditional method’ of counting walrus (by aerial survey, which the above account does not mention) is not the remoteness of the geography: it’s the way that walrus live that causes problems.
In summer or fall when these aerial counts are undertaken, walrus have a very wide distribution and move around often: there will be walruses on land, in the sea, and on sea ice all at the same time over a wide geographic area – and in addition, large numbers may move suddenly without warning.
More critically, the tendency of animals to pile on top of each other at haulouts makes it very hard to see every individual, even if you are counting them in an enlarged aerial photograph. Large numbers of animals in the water are similarly difficult to count, especially if they are close together and actively diving and swimming.
These factors make the walrus one of the most difficult of all animals to count, even for professionals trained to do so.
As a consequence, North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMC) officials determined in 2021 that all recent counts of Atlantic walrus (estimated at about 25,000) were probably an underestimate of the true population abundance.
The WWF notion that these animals can be accurately counted from satellite images by children is fanciful to say the least, even if the photos are enlarged a great deal (see example image proved in the press release below). There may be wider coverage of the geographic region with satellite images but I seriously question whether the accuracy of counting, done by children, can possibly be better than the poor estimates currently made from aerial photos by professional researchers. The new method will fail to reflect reflect real-life walrus numbers even more than the old method did and can’t help but have even larger margins of potential error.
In other words, about what we would expect from WWWF ‘science’.
The BAS involvement unfortunately lends this project a false veneer of scientific respectability. Obviously, it is not only Netflix and Attenborough that have been taken in by the huge amounts of cash that WWF has been able to throw around in recent years (amassed through donations) in their attempt to be included as a serious player in the climate change research game. However, the scheme encourages children and their parents to access WWF webpages, where they are further exposed to alarmist climate change rhetoric and the false or misleading ‘facts’ that fit the WWF narrative.
This project seems destined to be nothing more than a successful WWF self-promotion exercise.
Born, E.W., Gjertz, I. and Reeves, R.R. 1995. Population assessment of the Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus L.). Norsk Polarinstitutt Meddelelser 138.
Wiig, Ø., Born, E.W. and Stewart, R.E.A. 2014. Management of Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) in the arctic Atlantic. NAMMCO Scientific Publications, 9, 315–341. https://doi.org/10.7557/3.2855