Technology

Polar bear web broadcasts from the Canadian wilderness

On the chilly western shore of Canada's Hudson Bay the polar bears are waiting.

The temperature is minus 31 Celsius (-24F) and the wind is gusting in at about 80km/h (50mph).

But the 900 beasts gathered on the edge of Wapusk National Park, close to the remote town of Churchill, probably wish it was even colder.

The animals migrate north from here when the waters freeze. They also feast.

"Polar bears are unique species and they've adapted to hunting out on the sea ice," says BJ Kirschhoffer, director of field operations at the conservation group Polar Bears International.

"Unlike any other bear species on the planet they require that ice platform in order to get their main prey which is the ringed seal and the bearded seal. And this population of polar bears here in the Hudson Bay is one of the two furthest south populations of polar bears."

Map of Hudson Bay, Canada
The polar bear migration sets off each year from close to the town of Churchill in Canada

Mobile broadcasts

Mr Kirschhoffer has spent the past few weeks tracking the bears' movements with a camera equipped truck dubbed Tundra Buggy One.

"I live on this thing," he says. "I woke up the other morning and there were seven bears outside my front window.

"To have the high tide of the Hudson coming right in front and having bears right outside the window is truly a breathtaking way to start the day."

But this is no leisure trip. Mr Kirschhoffer and a colleague are providing a daily live video feed to school children, and anyone else who wants to watch via the polarbearcam.com website.

The project is funded by a $50,000 (£31,950) grant from the Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation.

Greenhouse gases

It is part of a new scheme called Pearls of the Planet. The venture plans to follow a variety of animals in the wild to make the public think more about the environment and the impact of global warming.

Organisers believe a rise in temperatures is responsible for the Hudson Bay freezing later in the year and melting earlier. They say the water's surface turns solid around a fortnight later in November than it did 30 years ago, and it is melting a week or two earlier in June and July.

Since the bears need the ice to hunt and eat, they are going without meat for longer periods.

Charlie Annenberg is a trustee of the Annenberg Foundation and founder of Explore.org, which is building a media library from the material gathered by the project.

"You look at these bears and you realise something - they are the modern Gandhi," he says.

"They are going on this big long hunger strike and telling the world let's get our act together as we all have to live together."

Weight loss

Mr Kirschhoffer has tracked the bear's progress for five years and says that he believes they are skinnier this year than he has seen them before.

Polar bears sparring
Observers say the polar bears appear thinner as a result of having to wait longer to go onto the ice

"Every day that one of these polar bears goes without a meal they lose one kilogram of body fat," he says.

"They have evolved to eat incredible amounts of fat, metabolise that fat, store it on their body and then go through periods of these walking hibernations, these fasting periods.

"But there is only a certain amount of energy in the battery. And we are seeing evidence of this population having lower body condition as a result of these greenhouse gases."

Global warming is still a controversial subject. Some experts suggest that temperature rises could be the result of natural climatic changes, rather than mankind's activities.

This project aims to challenge that view.

To spread their message the organisers have linked up with Edmodo - a social learning network for teachers and students.

The team on Tundra Buggy One link up with scientists and offer schools question and answer sessions. They claim a recent webcast attracted about 4,000 streams, with many of those streams representing a class of more than 20 pupils.

Microwave network

Operating the service pushes web broadcast technology to its limits.

"The north is a harsh place, and all the temperatures are absolutely frigid," says Mr Kirschhoffer.

"The wind speeds are incredible, and all of that puts pressure on the things that we do. Especially technology. If it's going to break, it's going to break in the north."

Challenges range from dealing with the fact that the large batteries they use do not charge well in the cold, to having to fix one of their truck's broken tail lights after a bear bit into it.

But perhaps the greatest feat of all is creating a wireless internet network across the wilderness.

To achieve this Polar Bears International has teamed up with a local eco-tourism organisation - which also owns the Tundra Buggy - to build a point to point ISM band microwave network. The technology is more commonly used to shoot bandwidth from one city building to another.

Polar bear cam website
The website allows visitors to explore the truck used to film and stream the video footage

"The wireless network spans at its greatest length 75 kilometres from the very tip of Wapusk National Park reaching back over a couple of hops to where we get on the internet [in Churchill]," says John Gunther, President of Frontiers North Adventures.

"We've got this unreal communications network spanning over the tundra and out over the sea ice in some cases. And we're beaming these live images and live video over the web."

This gives the team on Buggy One huge freedom of movement.

"It's kind of a Citizens' Band radio of internet wireless communications," says Mr Kirschhoffer.

"What we've done is beef it up and put it on some extremely tall towers and shot this bandwidth up to 75 kilometres."

This offers 20 megabit per second upload and download speeds - via a set of radios attached to the team's mobile internet studio.

"We've created a roving buggy that is constantly connected to the web," BJ Kirschhoffer says.

"We can meander among the polar bears... and beam all that's happening inside and outside the buggy back to the web."

To prevent the team on board becoming overwhelmed by the scale of their job a team of video controllers, based in the US, chooses from the four feeds on offer to ensure the best footage is shown.

"Those remote administrators are doing the fine tuning of the cameras and tracking those bears, while BJ in the field is engineering things in real time and sort of snaffing out those fires before they start," says Mr Gunther.

Planning ahead

Nearly 30 days into the project the Hudson Bay's water has begun freezing over and the first wave of bears has just left the area.

Mother and cub polar bears
Polar bears with cubs may wait until February to take their young onto the ice

The project will continue to show live feeds of the stragglers and other wildlife until 26 November, but thoughts are already turning to next year.

"What we want to do is provide a better view for people. So right now we have four cameras up," says Mr Kirschhoffer.

"I want to push one out further where all the big bears hang out. And that's going to involved wind generators and methanol fuel cells."

Charlie Annenberg's goals are even more ambitious.

"I think that the day the ice freezes over will become a celebratory day.

"Children are going to ask their parents 'Did the ice freeze so my friends can eat already?'

"If we did this for five to 10 years then everybody who tunes in... would become their own scientists. And they are going to enhance their knowledge and become better custodians of the planet we live in."

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