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Ringed seal next to breathing hole on sea ice of St. Jonsfjorden, Spitsbergen
© Photo Aeria (Eelke Folmer)/NIOZ/WUR
The polar regions are among the most inaccessible places on our planet. Finding out where seal species reside is therefore a challenge. Researchers captured drone footage of seals near Spitsbergen. They compared them with satellite images to develop algorithms that automate the detection of seals in satellite images. These images taken from space are a valuable tool for the conservation of Arctic marine mammals.
To the surprise of researchers from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and Aeria, these satellite images revealed not only the location of ringed seals, but also polar bear tracks. “While we were aware of the potential of such satellite imagery for observing marine mammals from space, we were very surprised to see white lines across the ice connecting the ringed seal’s breathing holes. In this remote and cold environment. that can only mean one thing: polar bear tracks”, explains Geert Aarts, project manager of the Arctic Seal Project.
A polar bear with her cubs walks on the frozen ice of Spitsbergen.
© Photo: Jeroen Hoekendijk)
The resolution of satellite images has improved enormously over the past decade. Satellites orbiting the Earth at an altitude of more than 600 km can photograph any location on the Earth’s surface with a resolution of 30 x 30 cm. By also compressing the high-quality drone images to 30 x 30 cm resolution, researchers can create a photo that mimics satellite images from space. “Ultimately, these images can then be fed to a machine learning algorithm and used to train a neural network,” says PhD student Jeroen Hoekendijk, who was part of the research team and works with EPFL. to further develop these techniques.
By then applying this form of artificial intelligence to satellite images, researchers hope to automatically detect seals in these remote and hostile areas.
Walruses congregate at one of Spitsbergen’s permanent moorings.
© Photo: Aeria (Eelke Folmer)/NIOZ/WUR
Change of living environment
Eventually, the researchers hope to use these techniques to locate seals in the Arctic. Their habitat is changing rapidly due to climate change.
The fastest warming place on earth
This is particularly the case in the northern Barents Sea and the islands of Spitsbergen and François-Joseph Land. This region is the fastest warming place on Earth, with average temperatures increasing by 2.7°C per decade, and even 4°C per decade during the autumn months. Therefore, knowing what habitat seals depend on is imperative to understanding the impact of climate change and conserving these species.
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