Will Steger to relate experiences with climate change

Will Steger remembers his own, very personal experience with global warming.

It was March 1995. He was leading a six- person international team on a 2,500-mile dogsled journey from Russia across the Arctic

steger in copen 2150
Will Steger at United
Nations Climate
Change Conference
in Copenhagen
Will Steger Foundation, Nicole
Rom, 2009

Ocean and the North Pole to Canada. He was still close to the Russian shore in an area of unstable ice, when – despite a temperature of 50 degrees below zero – a storm began to break up the ice.

Two members of the expedition and one of the dog teams went into the water and had to be rescued and then warmed up in tents.

For two days, the expedition frantically dodged open water before safely making it back to shore. Eventually the explorers set off again and completed the trip to Canada.

“That was the scariest situation I’ve ever been in in my life,” Steger said in a recent interview.

And he believes that global warming contributed to the early-March breakup of the ice.

His nearly fatal error as leader of the expedition was relying on past experience and past weather records concerning the arrival of spring and ice conditions.

“Any trip I do in the Arctic region – it’s totally different than it was 20 years ago,” Steger said. “Spring is coming roughly three weeks earlier, it’s happening here in Minnesota, too.”

Steger will recount that experience and other personal observations about climate change and its impact on the waters of the world when he speaks Tuesday, Jan. 26, at a Freshwater Society event marking the formal beginning of the Society’s yearlong celebration of 2010 – The Year of Water.

“I’m going to talk about my experience – my own first-hand account of what I’ve seen in the polar regions over the last 15 years,” said Steger.  “A lot of people are confused by the facts and figures and the charts.”

The event that Steger’s talk headlines will begin at  7 p.m. at the Gray Freshwater Center, 2500 Shadywood Road, Excelsior.

steger with tent150
Will Steger on Baffin
Island in 2007
Will Steger Foundation, Abby
Fenton, 2007

Steger leads a Minneapolis-based foundation that largely is dedicated to educating people – especially young people — on climate change and trying to bring about policy changes to address it.

“It’s something we can’t push off,” Steger said of climate change. “We’ve got to move on it really quickly.”

Steger, who has been an Arctic and Antarctic explorer for most of his adult life, grew up in Richfield, where he began keeping weather records when he was 8 years old. He was a classmate of Freshwater Society President Gene Merriam at Benilde High School in St. Louis Park and earned a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s in education at the College of St. Thomas. He taught junior high science in Richfield in the late 1960s.

He has led a number of major expeditions: a 1986 dogsled trip to the North Pole, a 1,600-mile traverse of Greenland by dogsled in 1988, a dogsled expedition across Antarctica in 1989-90, the 1995 Russia-to-Canada trip, a 2007 dogsled trip to Baffin Island to study effects of Global Warming, and a 2008 trip across Greenland — on skis and propelled, in part, by kites — to document increased summer melting of ice sheets.

In his work with the Will Steger Foundation, Steger is committed to persuading people that climate change is real and that it can be halted – if individuals, businesses and governments make the right choices.

He argues that people will not “change their habits because of the polar bears,” but that they will make changes to protect U.S. national security and to secure the jobs and economic boom that he says a switch to home-grown energy sources would produce.

“There would be a huge economic boom that would make the technology boom look small,” he said.

In December 2009, Steger and his foundation took a delegation of young people to Copenhagen to observe the United Nations-sponsored climate conference.

Many critics faulted the conference for failing to produce an international treaty promising big reductions in carbon emissions. But Steger takes a glass-half-full approach to the nonbinding accord asking nations to reduce emissions sufficiently by 2050 to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“I wasn’t expecting to get an international treaty on the first run,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that way…People are disappointed because they want more. But it’s a process, it’s ongoing.”

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