Science, Tech & Environment

Now you can zoom in on polar bears using Google Street View

Polar Bear and Tundra Buggy-Trekker3_CROP.jpg

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Google

A polar bear checks out the Tundra Buggy with a Google Maps Street Trekker attached.

Where are you most likely to see a polar bear in its natural habitat?

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One of the biggest populations of the majestic seal hunters is along the frozen shores of Hudson Bay in Churchill.

Known as the "polar bear capital of the world," Churchill is in Canada's remote north. And it's not easy to get there.

But now, with the help of Google Maps and one of its Street Trekker cameras attached to a Tundra Buggy, you can visit Churchill and see the bears with just a click.

Google teamed up with the conservation group Polar Bears International on the project and traveled with the group in one of those Tundra Buggies.

"Often, if you turn off the buggy and keep the buggy still, bears will come right up to the buggy," says Polar Bear International's Executive Director Krista Wright.

"They'll come up on their hind legs and put their front paws right on the buggy. You can actually hear the bear chuffing and breathing. You can lock gazes with the bear. It really is a spectacular experience."

Wright says one of the biggest threats to polar bears is melting sea ice as a result of climate change.

Polar Bears International sought out Google, thinking that the images from Street View might inspire people.

"We know from our past experience that when we can inspire people about polar bears, they care more about polar bears," Wright says. "Hopefully, through that inspiration and education, they are more prone to take action on behalf of polar bears."

She says that was one of their biggest goals, to inspire people and to connect people to the tundra. But also to "provide the opportunity to experience what a polar bear looks like in the wild and where they live, knowing that most people will never have the opportunity."

Wright says the project was also part of an effort to establish a baseline of where the ice is.

"Our second goal was getting baseline imagery of this area knowing that it's changing and it's changing quickly," she says. "So our goal is to bring Street View back next year, five years from now, 10 years from now and compare the changes that we are seeing over time."

That information is critical to understanding the impact of climate change on the polar bears' sensitive ecosystem. Polar bears are completely dependent on the sea ice for foraging and hunting.

"I think often people don't fully understand the significance of sea ice to a polar bear," Wright says. "It is their primary habitat. And we are seeing a big change in that habitat. In fact, we are seeing an ecosystem that's literally disappearing from the face of the planet."

You can explore the frozen tundra along Hudson Bay via Google Maps and check out the amazing pictures from the project below.

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