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Cameras Stream Live Canadian Polar Bear Migration

Innovation award

Canada- Churchill, Manitoba | Nov 4 2011 | (12:00:55 - EDT)

An estimated 1,000 polar bears linger outside the Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze over around this time, every year, so they can hunt seals and other marine mammals. Tourists flock to the town to see them. But this year it’s different, as cameras turned on the polar bears are also bringing a front row view of their annual migration to anyone with an Internet connection.

A group of philanthropic and animal welfare organizations have partnered to eventually set up a string of high-definition cameras in remote wilds to "allow people to observe the natural world we live in with the hope that they'll develop emotional connections with the planet," said Charlie Annenberg, a filmmaker and founder of explore.org who spearheaded the project.

His team affixed the first of them on the outskirts of Churchill, onto a roving "Tundra Buggy" that is used for transporting tourists, and on the edges of a lodge situated directly in the path of the age-old migration.

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Harsh weather and wavering Internet connectivity in the far north proved to be a challenge. But the video capturing the migration, which starts in the last week of October through the end of November, is now being streamed live on explore.org

Thanks to an initial $50,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation to set up four cameras on a makeshift lodge and a roaming Tundra Buggy, plus ongoing payments for bandwidth and technical infrastructure, the bears' antics and actions at this way station can be viewed from anybody's living room through the foundation's website.

"It brings the Arctic to the people," said Krista Wright, executive vice president of Polar Bears International, an advocacy group based in Bozeman, Mantioba. "The polar bear is the North's iconic species. This is that exotic animal that people travel from all over the world to see."

There are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide. The Western Hudson Bay polar bears, one of 19 subpopulations, are estimated to number between 600 and 800. Their gathering point near the former military town of Churchill makes them among the most accessible and studied group of bears in existence. Their numbers are expected to grow over the next few weeks as the weather turns colder, culminating with the bay expected to freeze around the third week of November.

The Polar Bears International camp on the tundra is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) outside of town. Each September through November, they and Frontiers North Adventures host scientists and hold webcasts for schoolchildren to give them a firsthand view of how climate change is damaging the bears' habitat.

"It's unseasonably warm in Manitoba, as evidenced on the webcam by the tundra bare of snow. That raises concerns that ice will be late in forming again this year- last year, freeze-up didn't happen until mid-December, nearly a month later than usual. That's a problem for the bears," Wright said.

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