Explorer Will Steger hits milestone in climate awareness effort

Will Steger speaks at the Norway House.
Will Steger discusses climate change and some of his personal experiences in the Arctic on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, at the Norway House in Minneapolis, Minn.
Sam Harper for MPR News

Will Steger's heart may be in the wilderness, but his houseboat in St. Paul is where he gets things done.

"I'm the only houseboat down here with an actual bathtub," he said during a recent tour of his cabin-like fall and winter residence on St. Paul's Harriet Island.

Besides the bathtub, the houseboat has a fancy gas stove, skylights and custom woodwork Steger made himself at his home in Ely.

"It's almost like a floating office with a bed and a kitchen," he said.

The impetus for moving from Ely to St. Paul, at least for some months of the year, came a little over 10 years ago. Steger had already been to the arctic and Antarctica. He'd witnessed climate change in a way most people haven't.

But it wasn't until 2002 that the pace of change really hit him.

"I was in Ely in March, reading the Minneapolis Tribune and I think it was page 9 or 10, I open it up and it said, 'Larsen B ice shelf disintegrates,'" he said.

Steger had stood on that ice in 1989. "It was the largest land feature I had ever seen, and looking at it, of course, it looked like it was forever," he said.

But just 12 years later, it was mostly gone.

"That changed my life," he said.

Soon after, Steger moved to St. Paul to speak to more people about climate change, and he pushed Minnesota policy makers from both sides of the aisle to adopt renewable energy laws to address the problem. In 2006, he launched the Will Steger Foundation, which is now called Climate Generation, to improve climate literacy among K-12 students and teachers.

In 2007 and 2008, Steger led arctic expeditions to Baffin and Ellesmere islands, to document the impact of climate change on local communities. Students and teachers across the country incorporated the experience into their lesson plans.

Will Steger and Tobias Thorleifsson.
Will Steger laughs as Toby Thorleifsson responds to an audience question during a discussion revolving around climate change and the Arctic.
Sam Harper for MPR News

As Climate Generation marks its 10th anniversary this week, Steger is also reflecting on the 30 years since he and two other Minnesotans, Ann Bancroft and Paul Schurke, traveled to the North Pole by dogsled.

Bancroft is the first woman known to have crossed both poles, earning the distinction after a 1993 trek across Antarctica. She says storytelling has been a powerful way to reach those for whom climate change is not top of mind.

"It stops a room when you say and you show a picture of traveling to the North Pole in 1986 as a 30-year-old on the back of a dogsled and you say that that is no longer something that you could do. It is a dramatically different place," she said.

Just last month the Arctic Ocean was 25 degrees above normal in some areas, and sea ice hit record low levels.

When Steger and other explorers came home from expeditions they talked about seeing melting ice, but they also told stories of braving extreme temperatures and crossing fjords, mountain ranges and ice shelves as they covered hundreds of miles with the dog teams.

"People want to hear about people," said Toby Thorleifsson, a Norwegian climate educator who traveled with Steger on the Ellesmere Island expedition.

He says Steger and other explorers have a unique perspective on climate change.

"He's been an extraordinarily important voice, because this issue very often gets bogged down in politics or ideology," he said.

While Steger and Bancroft have not been in the arctic documenting the most recent dramatic warming trends, they say they don't need to be there. There are now enough climate change impacts in Minnesota to capture people's attention.

The Twin Cities easily broke its record for the longest growing season, for example.

"It's nice having a warm winter down here, but what that means globally and for the future of humanity and life as we know it, it's pretty sobering," Steger said.

Bancroft's latest work focuses on threats to water, and she's planning an expedition along the Mississippi River as part of a multi-year project highlighting water concerns on each continent.

Steger says while it's gotten easier for people to understand climate change impacts, there's still plenty work to do on the solutions, especially when the political divide on climate change seems wider than ever.

A few years ago he said he changed the way he talked about solutions. He now focuses on the economic prosperity that he says could come with a transition to clean energy, especially in a state like Minnesota that doesn't have fossil fuels.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.