Walruses from space: walrus counts in simultaneous remotely piloted aircraft system versus very high-resolution satellite imagery

Regular counts of walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) across their pan-Arctic range are necessary to determine accurate population trends and in turn understand how current rapid changes in their habitat, such as sea ice loss, are impacting them. However, surveying a region as vast and remote as the Arctic with vessels or aircraft is a formidable logistical challenge, limiting the frequency and spatial coverage of field surveys. An alternative methodology involving very high-resolution (VHR) satellite imagery has proven to be a useful tool to detect walruses, but the feasibility of accurately counting individuals has not been addressed. Here, we compare walrus counts obtained from a VHR WorldView-3 satellite image, with a simultaneous ground count obtained using a remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS). We estimated the accuracy of the walrus counts depending on (1) the spatial resolution of the VHR satellite imagery, providing the same WorldView-3 image to assessors at three different spatial resolutions (i.e., 50, 30 and 15 cm per pixel) and (2) the level of expertise of the assessors (experts vs. a mixed level of experience – representative of citizen scientists). This latter aspect of the study is important to the efficiency and outcomes of the global assessment programme because there are citizen science campaigns inviting the public to count walruses in VHR satellite imagery. There were 73 walruses in our RPAS ‘control’ image. Our results show that walruses were under-counted in VHR satellite imagery at all spatial resolutions and across all levels of assessor expertise. Counts from the VHR satellite imagery with 30 cm spatial resolution were the most accurate and least variable across levels of expertise. This was a successful first attempt at validating VHR counts with near-simultaneous, in situ, data but further assessments are required for walrus aggregations with different densities and configurations, on different substrates.


Publication status:
Published Online
Authors: Cubaynes, Hannah C. ORCIDORCID record for Hannah C. Cubaynes, Forcada, Jaume ORCIDORCID record for Jaume Forcada, Kovacs, Kit M., Lydersen, Christian, Downie, Rod, Fretwell, Peter T. ORCIDORCID record for Peter T. Fretwell

On this site: Hannah Cubaynes, Jaume Forcada, Peter Fretwell
21 May, 2024
Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation
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