Polar explorer Will Steger, one of the most accomplished Arctic adventurers of all time, has seen and done things that most mortals can’t imagine. In 1986 he led the first dogsled expedition to the North Pole without resupply; in 1988, he traversed Greenland by dogsled, a 1,600-mile trip that was the longest of its kind ever; in 1989 he launched the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica, a seven-month, 3,471-mile journey.
What Steger never expected to see was the end of ice. And what he never expected to be doing is what he’s engaged in right now: a battle to fight climate change and save the planet.
Global warming doubters might refute the scientific studies, Steger says. What they can’t do, he believes, is refute eyewitness reports and photos from someone who’s explored the territory for 45 years. So Steger has taken the injured Arctic on the road.
The visuals are staggering. Recent years have seen the breakup of the Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica (which Steger crossed in 1989) and the Arctic’s Ward Hunt—two major ice shelves. Arctic sea ice has shrunk by massive proportions.
But Steger–never one to back down from a challenge–says there’s hope, and he’s seen that, too. On his Antarctica mission, he and five teammates “battled windchills of minus 150 degrees and mind-numbing whiteouts” for more than seven months, as freelancer Stephanie Pearson wrote in a wonderful profile in Outside magazine. Afterward, the team lobbied worldwide to forbid mineral extraction in Antarctica. They won in 1991, when the Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty was adopted.
In 2006, Steger launched the Will Steger Foundation, a nonprofit to raise awareness about global warming and the environment, in an effort to forge similar victories nationwide. To that end, he’s appeared this week in Montana — in Billings, Bozeman and, tomorrow, Missoula. (His free-admission, multi-media slide show, “Eyewitness to Climate Change,” is at 7 p.m. in the University of Montana Urey lecture hall.)
New West caught up with Steger at home in Minnesota as he prepared to come to Montana for the tour.
New West: You’ve kayaked, trekked and dog-sledded over tens of thousands of miles for your polar expeditions. What are you seeing on recent trips that’s different?
Steger: What we’re seeing is the summer sea ice is melting in the Arctic. In the polar region, we have 24-hour light for five months, and the sea ice reflects that sunlight. When the sea ice melts, that area is no longer reflective — it becomes absorbing — and that’s why we’re seeing the large temperature rise in the Arctic and changing the temperatures for the globe.
I’m seeing thawing levels that I’ve never seen before … It’s changing pretty fast. And the permafrost is starting to thaw more in summer, and that’s releasing methane [a global warming gas]. If you look at global temperature increases in the last five years, it’s striking.
NW: Did you ever imagine that a transformation was possible in just a few decades?
Steger: That’s what’s surprised me. I taught science in the mid-60s and taught about global warming, and the general common-sense view was that carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas, and to add it to the atmosphere would warm things. But I never really believed I’d see this kind of change in my lifetime.
When I go on trips now, I’m seeing areas for the very last time. Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought that was possible when I went to the Arctic as a young kid. It’s really shocking. I wish I could bring it into people’s living rooms: the reality of it.
NW: That’s what your presentations are all about, right?
Steger: Yes, that, and talking about solutions. The greening of the economy really will help national security and help the planet.
NW: A lot of people by now have seen photos of stranded polar bears on broken-up sea ice. Is that helping people see the reality?
Steger: Polar bears are good to make a point. … But when it comes to putting food on the table, in this recession, the bears fall on the back seat somewhere.
If energy prices are going off the wall, if making energy-efficient appliances and building a green economy creates companies that are hiring more Americans, that’ll be the force for change. Our society and human kind are on the edge, so we really have to make a move.
NW: What discourages you?
Steger: It’s disheartening because people are confused about the science of it all, and because profiteers are making money off of making people confused, and there’s a concerted effort to keep people confused so that the profiteers keep making money. So it’s a merry-go-round of pressure to keep people using more fossil fuels.
NW: Why this trip to Montana?
Steger: This is a very influential state. We need clean energy bills for this country, and that’s why we’re coming.
Some folks here may disagree about global warming, but I think we can all agree that we have a serious economic problem and a major national security problem. We spend $1 billion a day on foreign oil … That’s $1 billion a day that could be spent on our own country, and we’re spending it, and waging wars in foreign countries, to provide fossil fuels to our economy. Achieving energy efficiency is the most incredible, patriotic act we can do to protect the future of the country.
NW: What do you say to the doubters?
Steger: The doubters — those are the people I like to talk to. That’s what you gotta do when you want to save the planet.
The multi-media slide show, Eyewitness to Climate Change, is in the University of Montana Urey lecture Hall.
WHEN: 7:00 p.m. Thursday, February 11
WHAT ELSE: A resource fair begins at 6:30 p.m., with information tables from sponsoring organizations.
SPONSORS: Clark Fork Coalition, UM’s Climate Change Studies Program, the Sierra Club, Montana Audubon, the Trailhead, Montana Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, Repower Montana, and the Steger Foundation.