Polar bears may be familiar as the totemic species of climate change, but the fact that they live predominantly on Arctic sea ice means that very few people have the opportunity to see them in the wild.
A new collaboration between Google and Polar Bears International (PBI) aims to bring a dramatic and up-close polar bear experience into homes and classrooms around the world.
The project, launching today, International Polar Bear Day, focuses on Churchill, Manitoba, the self-styled "polar bear capital of the world" on the shores of Canada's Hudson Bay.
Every fall, hundreds of bears gather on the tundra on the outskirts of town, waiting for the bay to freeze so they can set out in search of seals.
Last year, Google experts visited Churchill during polar bear season and attached a Google Street View "Trekker" on board one of the Tundra Buggies. The buggies are school bus-sized vehicles on monster truck wheels that traverse the tundra allowing scientists and tourists to see (and be seen by) polar bears.
After 10 days of training from Google, the PBI team spent the season capturing imagery for a Google Street View look at Churchill, the tundra, the sea ice and the bears; as well as being viewable through Google Maps, the imagery can also be accessed via a portal on the PBI website.
Imagery includes bears sparring, walking on the nearby sea ice and resting in the snow. And close inspection may even reveal a bear cub or two.
In addition to exposing the wider world to a close-up view of Churchill and its bears, the imagery will also provide PBI and its scientists with a baseline record "of what everything looked like in October and November of 2013," says Karin Tuxen-Bettman, project manager for Google's work in Canada's Arctic.
PBI is also launching an online lesson plan, for using the imagery to learn more about the tundra and polar bear habitat. This way a statement that, for example, says polar bears shelter from the wind in low-lying willows can be verified by clicking along the Tundra Buggy track and finding an image of a bear doing just that.
"One of the amazing things for me was to be able to be out there in polar bear habitat and to see them from afar," says Tuxen-Bettman.
"It's such an exciting feeling to see them for the first time. The feeling I got was that they're so powerful, and they're so majestic, but at the same time I remember feeling sad because they're on a time limit almost. My personal perspective is that I really hope this imagery gets people close to those feelings."
"More and more scientists are working with Google to use Street View to establish baselines and monitor changes over time," says Tuxen-Bettman, who notes that researchers have also used the Trekker in places like the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands.
"It's a snapshot in time, but we're hoping that in the future, PBI will be able to accept the Trekker again and repeat the study."
PBI's executive Director Krista Wright emphasizes the scientific benefits of the imagery. "We are witnessing rapid changes in the land that makes up the habitat of the polar bear," she says.
The kind of information provided by bringing Google Street View to the Canadian tundra "is absolutely critical if we are to understand and communicate the impact of climate change on this sensitive ecosystem."