By Mary Losure
Will Steger's houseboat, moored on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, looks more like a base camp than a place where somebody really lives; it's furnished with a bed, a small desk, a laptop, stacks of papers, and not much else. Instead of the wild, cold places he loves to explore, Steger has set up camp here in the city to take on a new challenge—perhaps the biggest one he's ever faced. In his time, Steger has faced plenty.
His 1986 polar expedition by dog sled was the first expedition in history to reach the North Pole without resupply. (Robert Peary's 1909 claim was never confirmed.) In 1990 Steger became the fourth person ever to reach both the North and South Poles; he is the first person to reach both poles by dog sled.
"All my life, I've sought out challenges that would put me on the edge," Steger says. Now he has challenged himself to educate and inspire people to do something about global warming.
Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere. As atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases increase, so do temperatures. Recent data from the National Academy of Sciences show that during the 1990s, global temperatures climbed to the highest levels in more than four centuries.
In October 2005 Steger left his north woods cabin outside of Ely, where he's lived since 1970, and moved to the Twin Cities to begin an education campaign called Global Warming 101. He'll speak to anyone who will listen.
On a steamy day in August at the Minnesota State Fair, a video about recycling plays on a floor-to-ceiling screen in a red-brick building. Seats on recycled plastic benches gradually fill; more people wander in until the audience numbers around 50. Steger stands to one side, waiting.
In photographs Steger, who is 62, sometimes looks grizzled and tired. But today he has a light step and a boyish air. He's wearing jeans, sandals, and a microfiber T-shirt. His brown hair is only slightly grayed at the temples. "How old is this guy?" someone in the audience asks.
The video ends, and the screen switches to a slide of cabins deep in snow and evergreens, and Steger steps on stage. "Doesn't it look nice, all this snow on a day like this?" he asks. His talk begins with slides from his 1986 expedition. Sled dogs and parka-clad explorers travel across a seemingly endless expanse of white. The cold here is a fierce and powerful force. It seems inconceivable that humans could alter this frozen landscape.
Then the slides shift to the South Pole: A map of Antarctica shows the routes of legendary explorers Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 became the first to reach the South Pole, and Ernest Henry Shackleton, famous for rescuing his men when their ship, the Endurance, became trapped in ice in 1915. The map also marks Steger's 1989-90 Antarctic dog sled expedition. When Steger took on this challenge, only 13 men had ever traveled to the Antarctic interior, and only six had returned.
A wide-shot photograph of the landscape on the Antarctic's Larsen B ice shelf fills the screen. On this vast, flat plain of snow, dog sled tracks vanish into the distance. The Larsen B ice shelf is at least 10,000 years old, Steger says. When the photograph was taken in 1989, the ice was 1,400 feet thick.
The next slide juxtaposes an aerial shot of the ice shelf with a map of Minnesota: The ice shelf is bigger. In the humid, August air, women fan themselves with sheets of paper, but the crowd listens intently.
"The Larsen ice shelf disintegrated in 2002," Steger says, almost casually. The next slide shows the ice shelf holding lakes of meltwater. Then he shows a sequence of aerial shots of the ice shelf disintegrating. He replays the slides quickly, and it looks as though the ice is exploding. "Hunks the size of New Jersey," Steger says, are breaking off and floating into the ocean.
"What I'm seeing now, I thought would happen 30 years from now," Steger says.
"Will's a visionary on many fronts, but no one was prepared to see how quickly global warming would appear in the world," says Paul Schurke, co-leader of the 1986 expedition. When he returned to the North Pole in May 2006, Schurke found temperatures hovering around the freezing point: 100 degrees warmer than the low of minus 70 he'd encountered in May 1986.
"A lot of people wring their hands," Schurke says, but Steger is not one of them. "With Will, the hallmark of the trips I've done with him is 'failure is not an option.'"
Schurke remembers a time, past the midpoint in their North Pole expedition, when food and fuel were so low and the distance yet to go was so great that it seemed they wouldn't make it. Schurke recalls Steger telling his physically and emotionally exhausted team: "Here's what the numbers say, and here's what the human spirit says; and we're going to reach the pole no matter what the numbers say."
"To this day, I don't know how we did it," says Schurke. "We were so psyched, so infused with mind over matter. . . . We left [for the pole] with 3 1/2 tons of supplies. We arrived there with 8 pounds of food."
Steger maintains a frantic travel schedule. The day after his State Fair appearance, he flew to Norway, boarded a Russian research vessel bound for Greenland, and sent back daily dispatches by satellite phone to his Web site, www.globalwarming101.com. During the summer, he toured rural Minnesota, visiting wind farms and urging farmers to support limits on carbon emissions in order to increase demand for alternative energy sources such as wind and ethanol. He's spoken to college students, church members, Audubon birders—the list goes on.
"He's everywhere," says harried staff member Linda Nervick, who sets up his interviews. Lisa Hershberger of Congregations Caring for Creation called up Steger "out of the blue" to ask him to make a speech at her church. "Right then and there, he agreed to do three of them," she says. Since then, Hershberger has been volunteering for the Will Steger Foundation, a far-flung, Internet-connected organization. "He's just putting everything he's got into this," she says. "He's working around the clock."
Steger's message is simple: We're putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Now we have to slow that trend, drastically. Now, and we should have done it yesterday, he says. We must all, collectively, do small things to conserve energy: Change to energy-conserving fluorescent lights; drive more fuel-efficient vehicles. Switch to alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar. Convince politicians that the public wants change. "This is not a partisan issue," Steger says.
In Greenland Steger saw signs of the devastation that global warming could bring to wildlife populations. Asked about his trip there, he opens up his laptop and clicks on a folder titled "dead bear pictures."
One shows a starved polar bear stretched out on snowless ground. Its thick fur lies in deep, wrinkled folds. It looks like a teddy bear with the stuffing removed. Polar bears in the Arctic are starving because the ice floes where they normally hunt their main food source, seals, are melting away. Time and time again, Steger has explained the plight of polar bears to his audiences, but now he's hoping another set of voices—that of the indigenous people of the Arctic, the Inuit, will reach Americans in a way he can't.
During a 2004 dog sled expedition across the Northwest Territories of Canada, Steger was struck by how global warming had become part of the everyday lives of Inuit people there, while the rest of the world knew almost nothing of what was happening to them.
As the climate warms, the disruption to hunting and fishing there has been profound. When hunting seal, walrus, and whale, Inuit hunters can no longer rely on familiar patterns of weather and ice movements the way they did for generations. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune told of Inuit villagers slipping to their deaths through cracks in ice fishing grounds that have been safe for decades. Starving polar bears are prowling villages for food. Robins, a bird for which the Inuit language has no name, have appeared in Arctic villages for the first time. To learn more about the Inuits' experience with climate change, this February Steger and other expedition members will travel by dog sled with a group of Inuit hunters across Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. They will interview village elders and send photos and videos back to their global warming Web site. Later, the materials will be used to make a documentary film.
"We want to put an Inuit face on global warming," Steger says. "We want to touch people in the heart."
To imagine what's happening to the Inuit, Steger suggests an analogy: "Let's say to the people of Minnesota, you lose your pheasants, you lose all your fishing, all the values that you hold, the Boundary Waters—all that's taken away from you."
Still, Steger holds out hope for the future. He tells his audiences he thinks we're at the darkest point right now. "Either we're going to come together, or we're going to lose the whole thing. But I do think we're going to come together."
Steger envisions a non-oil-dependent world as a better place to live. "Pollution will be gone. Our cities will be pure. We'll see 10 times as many people biking," he says. "We have a really good life ahead of us, if we don't lose it."
As a young explorer, Steger could not have possibly imagined that the remote arctic places he explored would someday be melting before his eyes. But when asked about witnessing this change, he says something startling: "I feel almost fortunate to be alive to see it."
He sees global warming as a challenge on a planetary scale. "It's like the asteroid that hit the earth that destroyed the dinosaurs," he says.
"I want to help people wake up, to see that this is real and that we need to act now." It's the message of an expedition leader who believes we still have time to do something—and that failure is not an option.
Mary Losure, former environmental reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, is co-founder of Round Earth Productions, www.roundearthproductions.org.