Explorer Returns to the Arctic to Take On Global Warming

Dan Picasso

Polar explorer Will Steger's closest brush with death came on a dogsled trek across the Arctic. It was 1995, and Steger and a team of five other men and women were attempting to become the first expedition to cross the surface of the Arctic Ocean, from Russia to Canada, in a single season. But their 2,500-mile trip almost ended as soon as it began.

For the first 40 miles, the dogsled teams had to traverse a "shear zone," an area where the Arctic Ocean's floating ice pack can scrape against shore and create pools of open water.

"We left real early in the season," Steger says. "The goal is to get across before the shear zone breaks. It was 50 below, an ideal temperature. It keeps things frozen. And it looked like we were going to cross it okay."

But within days of leaving land, a huge storm rolled in at midday, so intense that it began to break up the ice, setting the crew adrift.

"We were just being pulled out to open ocean," Steger remembers. "When it broke up, two of the guys and one dog team went in. We were thawing them out in the tent. They were very hypothermic. But we had to move."

Steger and his teams made a mad scramble in search of a way back to solid land, but in the cold and dark of polar night, with only six hours of light each day, his dog teams lost sight of one another. "And we were being stalked by bears," Steger says. "It was almost out of control."

The group traveled for two days nonstop, skirting open water and searching for a path off the constantly moving ice.

"We were so exhausted," Steger says. "But you just had to keep going. Your spirit just pushed you to keep going, because it was survival."

Finally the teams reached shore—and were immediately hit by another intense storm that kept them pinned down for nine days. When it was all over, Steger and his team emerged from their tents, regrouped—and started out again, finally completing their epic journey to Canada four months later.

No one can say Steger hasn't earned his place in the record books. In his 40-odd years of adventure travel, he has racked up a long list of firsts: the Arctic crossing, the first confirmed dogsled trip to the North Pole without resupply, the longest unsupported dogsled expedition in history—a 1,600-mile, north-to-south trip across Greenland, and the first dogsled crossing of Antarctica, a grueling 3,471-mile trek that took more than seven months.

Along the way, he's endured temperatures as low as -70 degrees, wind chills of more than 100 below, and legions of aggressive polar bears.

But by 1997, after an aborted solo trek to the North Pole, the 63-year-old Steger had all but retired from major expeditions. That changed a couple of years ago, however, with his growing concern over global warming, which has become both a threat and a boon to a bona fide arctic explorer. Steger has said he plans to devote the rest of his life to raising awareness of the changing environment. Lured to the Twin Cities from his home in Ely, he has made hundreds of speeches and appearances throughout the state and has joined Minnesota's Climate Change Advisory Group. But restless to make a bigger impact, he is also hitching up his dog teams once again for a series of major expeditions.

For Steger, one of the few souls on earth to have set foot on both poles, global warming isn't just an environmental imperative—it's personal. He is watching the polar frontier, and in some sense his livelihood, evaporate before his eyes.

"We lost last year 50 percent of the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean," Steger says. "The entire Northwest Passage for the first time in history was wide open."

Environmentally, he says, "we have a catastrophe on our hands. The climate could spin out of control—and it will—if we don't take action soon."

The United Nations released another report last month emphasizing that the world's carbon dioxide emissions must stabilize by 2015, and then decline, to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Steger believes the next two years will be decisive in determining whether the world meets that goal. Reenergized by the threat, he created the Will Steger Foundation and embarked on a new public awareness initiative, Global Warming 101. The centerpiece of the initiative is an ambitious schedule of four major expeditions in three years: two in the Arctic, plus trips to Antarctica and Greenland. Through the Global Warming 101 website, the public can follow the expeditions through daily audio and text transmissions, download classroom lesson plans, and develop community action programs.

Next March, about the time most Minnesotans begin to thaw from their long, frigid winter, Steger will be heading north on the second of those treks, chasing winter to one of the coldest, harshest environments on earth.


"We're going as far north as you can go," Steger says, to Ellesmere Island, a frozen expanse far inside the Arctic Circle, the last remnant of land before the North American continent gives way to the Arctic Ocean and sea ice.

From there, Steger and a team of six, all between the ages of 21 and 28, will launch a 1,400-mile dogsled expedition to show an internet audience the dramatic effects of global warming on the island's ice shelves.

Steger's plans made news recently when media reports surfaced that the explorer and Gov. Tim Pawlenty were in talks about having the governor meet the expedition on a portion of the trip, though Steger says Pawlenty's involvement is "still in the air."

The Ellesmere project comes less than a year after Steger's first expedition to Baffin Island, another arduous, 1,200-mile, four-month dogsled trip that he completed in May.

"Baffin is in the eastern Canadian Arctic," Steger says. "It's ground zero of global warming."

Steger calls it one of the fastest-changing areas on earth, and unlike Ellesmere, it has a thriving population of native Inuit, who still depend on hunting and fishing for most of their food.

"The villages are in remote areas. You can access them either by dog team or airplane. So we traveled to five of the villages. And in between were 200 or 300 miles of part mountain ranges and sea ice, so it was an incredible adventure just getting from one town to another."

Steger invited seven others to join him on the journey, four Minnesota educators with expedition experience and three Inuit hunters, along with 50 dogs in four teams.

The Inuit, Steger says, "were in their 50s and 60s—elders, very well respected. They were our eyes and ears on the expedition itself. Our main goal was really to document what's happening through their own observations. So we interviewed elders and hunters to see firsthand what changes they were experiencing."

It didn't take long for Steger and his party to discover for themselves the dramatic effects of global warming during the first 300-mile leg of their expedition, perhaps the most challenging of their trip.

"We were still in midwinter," Steger says. "It was February and quite cold and windy, 40 below, which wasn't that bad, actually." Their route was to take them across the frozen Cumberland Sound, an immense bay 120 miles long and 50 miles wide. But when they arrived at the shores of the sound, they were astonished to find their path blocked by open water. The local Inuit natives said they had never seen the bay ice-free in winter in their lifetimes.

"This thing had just broken up about 10 days before we got there," Steger says. "It wasn't only that it added an extra 75 miles to our route, because we had to go around the shoreline, but it was just another of those ominous signs that global warming was real."

The open sound also had dire consequences for the local village. "A large part of their income for the year is from ice fishing," Steger says. They rely on the sea ice freezing because they have to get quite a distance out from land to get into the deeper water, and this year, the entire ice-fishing industry—well, 80 percent of it at least—was really under because of the ice. It really has impacted that community in a very big way."

At every village along their route they talked with the Inuit about changes they may have experienced from global warming.

"All these elders and hunters were real individuals, real humble people," Steger says. "The majority of them were born in igloos or sod huts before the influence of Western people. They were very wise, very kind always, and full of great, great knowledge.

"They're aware of global warming, because everything is changing, and they know it's global warming. They know the United States is causing it. They don't have a full understanding of the scientific knowledge behind it. You'd think they would be hostile toward us, like we would be hostile to someone who's changing our climate, but they just wish that the United States would change."

Steger believes that change may still be possible. "If the United States would wake up, which I think we're starting to, we could do this," he says. "We are paying attention, but we need action."

Though he retains some optimism for the future, he also remembers the words of the Inuit on Baffin Island.

For all of the troubles being inflicted on them by global warming, Steger says, "they always would tell us they were very adaptable people. Very resilient. They say, 'Why should we worry for something that is going to happen that we can't change?' They've adapted in the past, and they'll adapt to this. And if the ice melts, they'll fish, and if the sea level goes up, they'll just move their villages."


But then, Steger says, often the Inuit would turn the conversation around, and ask him a question he couldn't answer: "When global warming comes south," they would say, "will your culture be able to adapt?"

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