Monday, May 21, 2007

The Green Options Interview: Will Steger, Polar Explorer

Here is the latest of my interviews for Green Options:

Will Steger, famed polar explorer whose feats include the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without re-supply, the longest unsupported dogsled expedition in history (1,600 mile south-north traverse of Greenland), and the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica, is now on a new mission. He is an eyewitness to the impacts of global warming, both in the Polar Regions and in his home state of
Minnesota. A former science teacher, he has set out to educate people on global warming and the solutions needed to slow it. He returned last week from a four-month trek by dogsled across Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic to interview the Inuit people, who have had to adapt quickly to a new lifestyle because of climate change. Steger will use these interviews to produce a documentary later this year.

I spoke with Will by phone on May 15th. He was in Iglulik, Nunavut; the last stop of his expedition.

Green Options: You’ve traveled both Polar Regions extensively and have documented how climate change is drastically changing their landscapes. What was different about this trip?

Will Steger: This was a new route for me because this was a cultural expedition. We specifically planned the route so we could visit as many villages and talk with as many people along the way as possible. We know global warming is happening and we want to put a human face on it. So we spent a lot of time in villages. Our team included myself, three team members, and three 50- or 60-year-old Inuit hunters. We talked with hundreds of people.

Baffin Island, where I traveled, is like ground zero of global warming because there’s an in-tact culture that relies very heavily on their surroundings to survive. Changes are noticed almost immediately. Up here, global warming is showing itself most drastically out on the sea ice. As the earth warms, 80 percent of that energy goes into the ocean, which then affects the ice cover. The Inuit are seeing the ice freeze six weeks later, along with earlier break ups of the ice. Generally, the Inuit have had about 8 months where they are able to travel on the ice to hunt, and now that’s cut down to 5 or 6 months. That’s a 25 percent reduction in the amount of time they have to hunt out on the ice, which acts like an extension of their land.

GO: Are the Inuit angry? It is industrialized countries’ pollution that has caused this.

WS: Everyone is talking about global warming up here, there’s no denial about it. But the Inuit are forgiving people. Many of them aren’t worried about it because they can’t change it, and they don’t worry about things they can’t change. They understand that the polluters are industrialized nations, but in general they don’t harbor a lot of anger. They wish we would change, but they’re pretty easy going.

But we still have to take responsibility. Our way of consuming energy is really causing this, and we need to change to avoid the worst of the consequences.

GO: You’ve documented the changes up there before; did anything surprise you about this trip?

WS: Let me first say that no single event “proves” global warming. Global warming is an accumulation of changes happening over time. That said, I did see an effect that really surprised me, and everyone up there was talking about it: There is a large sound called Cumberland Sound. It’s about 50 miles wide and 125 miles long, and we were going to cross it on this expedition. But the ice broke up from the swells from a super storm in the North Atlantic. Everyone was talking about that. So we had to go around it, which was an extra 75 miles. That’s not a major hardship for the team, but it is for the Inuit communities because they depend on the sound for commercial fishing. Now it has shattered the fishing industry. It isn't just abou the environment; it’s the fact that it affects the economy and survival of this entire community.

Another impact really struck me. There’s a place up here they call the “land where ice never melts.” Well, it is melting. The glaciers are shrinking. That was incredibly powerful to see.

GO: Seeing all these impacts from climate change, was this trip depressing or invigorating?

WS: Neither. It was reaffirming: We were ground-truthing the science.

You have to understand that this Inuit culture does not think the way we do. Their world is close to the land. They talk in minute details of the changes in the salt in the sea ice, details that aren’t even in the climate change models. You rely on a lot of satellite info up here, but there aren’t a lot of scientists.

GO: How do the Inuit talk about global warming?

WS: Many of the elders will say the earth’s axis has changed because the sun is rising in a different place. But what’s really happening is that, because our warming planet causes more water to be absorbed up into the atmosphere, they are seeing a diffraction of the sun. It’s like an optical illusion caused by global warming. They also say that the sky color has changed: it’s now a whitish blue in the winter rather than a deep blue. In the wintertime up here, the sun doesn’t rise. But now the Inuit say the light is getting brighter in the winter. Again, the water vapor is diffracting the light in the atmosphere, making it seem lighter.

GO: What are your next steps after you return to the States?

WS: We have a lot of film from our expedition up here. We’ll be heading out to Los Angeles to start producing the documentary. In the summer, we’ll be back up to Baffin Island to do more interviews with the elders.

I’m also back on the global warming campaign trail in November, along with Fresh Energy, an energy policy organization with which I partner. We’ll be educating folks on solutions, specifically speaking a lot with congregations in the faith community.

Governor Tim Pawlenty appointed me to sit on Minnesota’s Climate Change Advisory Group. I’m working with about 50 other people from industry, environmental groups, local and tribal governments, transportation, and agriculture to develop a climate change action plan for the state.

I’ll also be working more with high school students, which I’m very excited about. They must feel empowered to fight this. They’re not taking on the challenge yet, but I think it’s going to happen soon, and I want to be part of it. I want to do now what we did 30 years ago during the Vietnam War; create a movement with young people. That’s when we’re going to see real change.

Cross posted at Green Options

Photo credit: WillSteger.com

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