Scientists can now track whales from space!
And the blind shall see!Because 71% of Earth is covered by oceans, counting whales can be a bit like looking for tiny needles in a very large haystack. This is an important problem, because if we only have a fuzzy idea of how healthy populations are, it makes it a lot harder to be sure we are taking adequate conservation measures. This is particularly true with whales because "the extreme size of whales means that they have a high per-capita rate of food consumption and hence a potentially massive impact on their prey populations as well as the marine ecosystem."
Thankfully, scientists might just have found an effective new tool to better estimate whale population sizes. By combining very high-resolution satellite imagery with a new automated software detection system, it is now possible to find about 90% of the whales that would be found by a manual search of the same images, but in a small fraction of the time, allowing much larger areas to be covered at potentially lower costs.
Right now, most whale counting is done from the shore or from boats. Not exactly ideas to cover a large area...
"Our study is a proof of principle," said Peter Fretwell from the British Antarctic Survey. "But as the resolution of the satellites increases and our image analysis improves, we should be able to monitor many more species and in other types of location. It should be possible to do total population counts and in the future track the trajectory of those populations," he told the Inside Science programme on BBC Radio 4.
Another benefit of this technique is that it should reduce the number of plane accidents for marine mammal researchers. Right now they tend to spend a lot of time circling around in small planes out at sea to find and observe their research specimens, something that caused the death of many researchers because of accidents.
And who knows, maybe in a few years...
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