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Why This Philanthropist Is Building Polar Bear Cams

Explore.org is wiring the Arctic with web cams that capture polar bears in action. And you can watch them live.

Outside a tiny Canadian arctic seaport, a team of researchers was working on the challenging task of setting up webcams that can catch polar bears as they migrate to the Arctic Ocean. For several years, conservation group Polar Bears International (PBI) has worked with California nonprofit Explore.Org to promote “Polar Bear Week.” But there’s a problem with setting up the webcams, according to PBI’s BJ Kirschhoffer: The Arctic is cold, windy, and filled with polar bears that can easily destroy standard webcams.

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Kirschhoffer works in Churchill, Manitoba, a port on the Arctic Ocean with a population of approximately 850 which also happens to be at the southern end of the annual polar bear migration. As the ice cap freezes, Churchill’s polar bears migrate north onto the ice to hunt seals. But polar bear populations have been declining in many regions due to climate change and other factors; Polar Bear Week is designed to raise attention about the bears’ plight. And, of course, to show awesome footage of polar bears in the wild.

In a telephone conversation, Kirschhoffer explained that extensive work goes into placing the webcams in the wild. Explore.org and PBI have to cope with an extremely cold environment, an isolated locale with little Internet access, and a mission statement to film very large and potentially damage-causing animals.

Churchill was just wired for 4G services a few weeks ago; Explore.org’s eight cameras rely on a relatively slow 20mbps Internet connection. The cameras and a 51-square-mile Internet coverage zone are powered by solar arrays and placed in specially adapted camera housing with thermostats. Kirschhoffer says the camera housing is designed to withstand weather that can reach 40 below zero in winter, with wind that can reach 60 miles per hour.

Charles Annenberg Weingarten, Explore.org’s founder, says that a major part of the idea behind using the webcams is to give viewers a glimpse into the lives of animals they’d never otherwise see. His organization works with stakeholders such as PBI to place cameras in the wild in Alaska, Kenya, and elsewhere. It helps solve the significant logistical challenge of wiring cameras to stream live content to the Internet from these typically isolated areas.

In Churchill, which Kirschhoffer says is “pretty damn isolated,” the weather is currently unseasonably warm and the polar bears are waiting to migrate north as of press time. Polar Bear Week lasts from November 2 to November 8, and Annenberg recommends viewers tune in to watch the polar bears at sunset, approximately 5:30 p.m. central time. The polar bears can be viewed here.