The tundra surrounding Churchill, Manitoba, hosts one of the biggest gatherings of the planet's largest land carnivore. Every year, polar bears congregate to wait for the sea ice to start forming. This year, you can watch them on cameras broadcast live from the depths of the Arctic tundra.
A polar bear pops up to greet a lucky tourist in Churchill. Video credit Elise Andrew
For Polar Bear Week, IFLScience chatted with Polar Bears International’s director of field operations BJ Kirschhoffer. He’s the guy responsible for keeping the wireless blasting across the tundra and all the cameras turning over, streaming the live images of the bears around Churchill.
Tundra buggy one, which houses the media center used to broadcast the live cameras wirelessly around the world. Kt Miller/PBI/explore.org
From a souped-up tundra buggy, Kirschhoffer runs what is effectively a mobile media center. “It’s a custom-built vehicle, which is kind of like a polar bear monster truck,” he explained. “You’ve got this vehicle that has four and a half or five-foot tires, that’s four-wheel drive, has a big diesel engine, and you can load 40 people inside this thing and go meandering around the polar bears – and be safe. You don’t have to worry about tourists being nabbed, or anything like that because everyone is safe up inside the buggy.”
From tundra buggy one, Kirschhoffer is able to broadcast the goings-on of the bears happening right outside his window, recording it all on HD cameras and then sending it wirelessly across the tundra so that people like you and me can – quite incredibly – sit in the warmth of our homes and join in the spectacle. From mothers and cubs to fighting males, the tundra has it all going on. “The sparring is pretty interesting,” says Kirschhoffer. “Watching that is so impressive. Watching these two huge male bears pummel each other with these big paws, tearing at each other with their teeth, that is something which is unbelievable.”
Two big male bears sparring on the tundra. EXPLORE.org Films/YouTube
But there is more to the project than just the simple enjoyment of us armchair observers. The buggy also acts as a broadcast studio, in which Polar Bears International brings in biologists and climatologists to talk about the bears, and the challenges they face in a warming Arctic. So while the team is able to stream the action from cameras outside the buggy, on the inside they’re streaming talks with experts to classrooms all over the world. Mixing both streams from outside and inside like a television broadcast, during the peak of the season the team can be talking to three or four groups of students a day.
The ability to reach out to so many people, to show them the bears and talk about the threats facing them, makes it all worthwhile for Kirschhoffer, who spends around four months of the year up in Churchill and out on the tundra. “My longest trip out there, I think I spent about 83 days [in a row] in the buggy. I mean I haven’t been an astronaut, but I can imagine if you took that one step further, not being able to go outside your craft without special equipment and such. It was an interesting experience.”
The cameras are currently running live from a few different locations, and you can check out the one attached to Kirschhoffer's tundra buggy below. The incredible live polar bear cams are all made possible courtesy of philanthropic media organization explore.org, in partnership with Polar Bears International and Frontiers North Adventures.