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Polar bears pose for Google's Street View

Polar bears pose for Google's Street ViewA polar bear investigates a vehicle recording imagery for Google Maps in Churchill, Man. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Google

Google Maps users can now virtually trek across the frozen tundra outside Churchill, Man., and spy on the local residents, who weren't shy about posing for the cameras.

Known as the "Polar Bear Capital of the World," Google visited Churchill with the assistance of the non-profit Polar Bears International to capture images of the majestic animals and their habitat for its Street View feature.

"Churchill is a unique place because you have polar bears that come off the ice when it breaks up in midsummer and they wait on land until it freezes up again in the fall. And so you have an opportunity to actually see bears in the wild due to this migration," says Polar Bears International executive director Krista Wright.

Her favourite scene captured by Google's cameras is of two male polar bears sparring.

"You get a sense of how these animals interact with one another and you also have the opportunity to see their size and the power," Wright says.

"It connects people to the Arctic, the imagery is really spectacular, and so there's this opportunity for people to become connected to the ... polar bears and the unique ecosystem that very few people get to actually go see."

Wright says the footage recorded by Google will also be used by researchers to track the effects of climate change in the region.

"It's one of the most southern (polar bear) populations — that and the southern Hudson Bay — and because of that we're seeing climate change impact that population due to this ice-free period of time," she says.

"The breakup is happening earlier in the midsummer ... and essentially the less time bears spend on the ice the less time they have for feeding primarily."

Wright says the Google Maps project creates a baseline that is critical for understanding and communicating the impact of climate change on polar bear habitats.

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Polar bear Street View: http://bit.ly/1hpRKlg

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