A polar bear stands against a truck being used by Google Maps to document the Canadian tundra near Churchill, Manitoba. (GOOGLE)

Google Maps Street View has taken viewers to the Amazon, the Galapagos and now the Canadian Arctic, the home of polar bears. Last week, on International Polar Bear Day (Feb. 27), people could see the bears in their natural habitat.

The Google Maps team brought its cameras to Churchill and the surrounding tundra of Manitoba last October, capturing 360-degree panoramas of polar bears and their snowy habitat. The goal is to capture the remote and starkly beautiful environment before it disappears, possibly along with its furry inhabitants.

“The Street View project lets viewers explore the tundra and see the polar bear migration, no matter where they live,” said Krista Wright, executive director of the conservation nonprofit Polar Bears International (PBI). See Photos of Polar Bears on Google Street View and Video

Putting bears on the map

Google has worked with other nonprofits in the past to bring Street View to some of the world’s most remote places, including the Amazon, coral reefs and Alaska’s Denali National Park. Last year, PBI asked the Street View team to come to Churchill for 10 days to photograph the bears.

The Google team mounted its “trekker” camera on a donated “tundra buggy” to snap hundreds of shots of the bears, later stitching the photos together into panoramas.

The camera captured images of bears sparring with each other, bears resting on the snow and sea ice in Hudson Bay, and even a few adorable cubs at play. [5 Weird Facts About Polar Bears]

Although they mostly keep to themselves, “the bears tend to be curious — there are some times when they come up to the truck,” Wright said. One bear came up to the vehicle and stood up on its hind legs, pawing at the equipment. “We call it ‘buggy love,’ ” Wright said.

Karin Tuxen-Bettman, Google’s project leader in the Arctic, said the experience was amazing. “When you’re outside looking at a polar bear, for me, personally, I felt so much excitement, but I also felt a little scared,” Tuxen-Bettman said. “They’re huge, but also very fragile. I kind of wanted to hug them.”

Bear necessities

Polar bears face serious threats. They rely on sea ice to hunt, but the amount of sea ice is shrinking. The Street View imagery creates a baseline record of conditions that can be used to track and communicate the effects of climate change.

PBI plans to use the Google images for educational outreach, to teach kids about the bears and to give them a chance to virtually explore the animals in their natural environment. For example, the nonprofit is developing a map scavenger hunt using the Street View maps.

PBI is also interested in using Street View’s images for scientific research. Google trained PBI to use its special camera, and the nonprofit took a second round of images after Hudson Bay froze over. The group hopes to use the camera again to record changes in the bears’ habitat over time.

The leaders of the polar bear mapping project hope that making the Google images available over the Internet will increase public awareness about these charismatic creatures and the environmental threats they face. As Tuxen-Bettman put it, “To save the polar bears, you’ve got to save the sea ice. To save the sea ice, you’ve got to save the environment.”

This article was produced by Live Science.

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