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Ice-forecasting project uses Facebook to improve safety for walrus hunters and whalers

May 24th, 2011 | Alex DeMarban Print this article   Email this article  

Marine mammal hunters trying to negotiate increasingly finicky ice conditions have a new ally: a National Weather Service project that can shoot weather forecasts and satellite imagery straight to their cell phones.

Dubbed Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook, the second-year project updates four villages in the Bering Strait region with the outlooks. More coastal communities hope to be included in the future, said Gary Hufford, the agency's regional meteorologist in Alaska and project leader.

This spring, bowhead whalers on St. Lawrence Island used the reports to spot open-water leads where they could set up camps nearby on the shore-fast ice, he said. And when a powerful storm approached in late April, whalers temporarily abandoned their camps, thanks to the forecasts.

The idea for the project came from Vera Metcalf, executive director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission.

With the climate and sea ice in flux because of warmer temperatures - thinning ice can endanger hunters and their camps - commissioners wanted to supplement traditional forecasting methods with new technology, Hufford said.

"These hunters are great readers of the environment and they were worried about safety with sea ice conditions that are now changing and that they're not used to working in," he said.

The project allows hunters experiencing climate change first-hand to inform scientists and each other about what they're seeing, such as the thickness and movement of ice, said Metcalf. The project has its own Facebook page [!/pages/Sea-Ice-for-Walrus-Outlook/207243122638731], a forum where everyone can share reports and get the latest data, she said.

A post today by Karlin Itchoak includes these details: "Sea ice conditions were favorable over the weekend for walrus Southwest of Nome on the Bering Sea near the distant pan ice."

He continues, "I was surprised that the walrus stomach content was uncharacteristically high in clams for this time of year. Wind is picking up today, constantly changing sea ice trail characteristics. Beware of large clear ice sheet tops near broken ice."

People can also comment on the project's Internet page [].

Metcalf said its a neat project in part because it allows "ground-truthing," with hunters able to verify and expand on the data provided by scientists.

"It's exciting," she said.

On the scientific side, the project includes walrus and bowhead researchers, a sea-ice geophysicist and others.

For now, Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, as well as Wales and Shishmaref on the Seward Peninsula, receive the five-day forecast and 10-day outlook. The project starts April 1 and runs through June.

The satellite images span several miles off the coast of each village, but aren't detailed enough to allow hunters to spot animals, Hufford said.

"'We're not doing this to help them kill lots of walrus," he said. "We're trying to do this to ensure the safety of the hunters."

The project is low-budget, costing less than $20,000 annually. It's scheduled to continue in the coming years, but money for it will eventually run out, he said.

Hufford hopes to win support from the National Science Foundation to expand the project to new villages and keep it going. Current plans also call for upgrades in technology that will produce closer views of the ice.

One challenge has been getting the information to villages with fitful Internet and cell phone systems.

In some cases, Hufford's faxed the forecasts into tribal offices or even grocery stores. Word then spreads over the high-frequency radios commonly found in homes.

On better days, they've arrived by email.

Metcalf said she's surveying hunters to determine the project's usefulness so far. If things are working optimally, hunters are downloading satellite images onto their cell phones before making each day's plans.

"Safety is always the No. 1 priority," she said.


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