Google is taking the world on a polar-bear hunt in Northern Canada.
Last October, the popular search engine brought its Street View technology to Churchill, Man., at the same time the bears were waiting for the winter ice to set in along the shores of Hudson Bay.
For several years, Street View has provided panoramic, ground-level photography that allows users to drive virtually through the streets of cities and towns around the globe. Starting Thursday, armchair travellers will be able to move in the same way across the Arctic tundra, taking in the 360-degree image of sea ice, lichen-covered plains and, of course, the bears.
There have been Street Views completed of the Arctic communities of Iqaluit and Cambridge Bay, said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, a geo-data specialist at Google. But "this is the first time that we have gone out specifically to look for wildlife."
The trekker camera can now be placed on bikes, boats, backpacks and dog sleds, said Ms. Tuxen-Bettman. In the Canadian sub-Arctic, it was affixed to tundra buggies supplied by an adventure company in Churchill. When they headed out of town on the appointed day, there were concerns that the bears would not be there. But "we saw a ton of them," said Ms. Tuxen-Bettman.
To ensure minimal damage to the delicate Arctic ecosystem, the buggies were restricted to a series of old military trails. So sometimes the bears are visible only in the distance, she said.
"With some of the [polar-bear] images it's kind of like a scavenger hunt, which we think is going to be kind of fun for classrooms," Ms. Tuxen-Bettman said. "But some of them are closer than others so you can say, 'There's a polar bear right there.' "
The project was the idea of a group called Polar Bears International which was created to preserve the bears through research, conservation and programs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The aim was part inspiration and part conservation. With the images taken in the fall, and those that will be taken in future years, Polar Bears International and other environmental groups will be able to monitor changes in the sea ice and the bear population over time.
Krista Wright, the head of Polar Bears International, said polar bears ignite the human spirit. In that way, she said, they are like the elephant or the tiger of this continent.
"Two-thirds of the world's polar bears live in Canada," Ms. Wright said. "This is our iconic species of North America and, most importantly, they tell a story of a much bigger picture and that is of a changing climate. You have an ecosystem that is not just changing, it's disappearing."
As the traditional habitat of the polar bear is altered, scientists predict there will be fewer bears born and fewer young bears surviving to maturity, she said.
So taking Google Street View across the tundra "is an opportunity to connect people to the Arctic and to connect people to the changes that are happening in the Arctic," Ms. Wright said. "It will connect people to this ecosystem that not very many people will have the opportunity to come and experience for themselves."
Meanwhile, Google is lending its technology to Parks Canada and has already filmed virtual tours of 76 national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas with more work planned this year. Some of the trails that were filmed near Churchill were in Wapusk National Park, which receives few visitors on the ground.
"We want to make our places more accessible to Canadians," said Ellen Bertrand, the director of external relations for the parks agency, "and to inspire them to come visit Parks Canada locations across the country."