by Bryan Walsh:
Do you want to see the effects of global warming? Then head north. Temperatures are increasing faster in the far north than they are in the more temperate zones of the world. Recent studies indicate that the North Pole could be underwater during the summer in less than 10 years, instead of coated in thick sea ice. But seeing the Arctic terrain up close isn’t easy, unless you’re handy with a dogsled, so Will Steger is going to take all of us there.
Steger, 64, is a legendary polar explorer. He was the first person to make a dogsled trip to the North Pole, and a winner of the National Geographic Adventure Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s at home in frozen, forbidding parts of the world where few humans ever tread. Steger is also a dedicated environmentalist who was early to ring the alarm bell on global warming. He saw its effects firsthand in frequent polar expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica.
To help raise awareness of the damage that climate change is wreaking on the polar regions, Steger is about to lead a team of six young adventurers on a 1,400-mile, 60-day-long dogsled trip across Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian Arctic. The sea ice in that region should still be frozen. The rest of us can observe Steger’s journey on the website globalwarming101.com. “We want to take our audience to the front lines of global warming,” says Steger. “We provide the spark with this expedition.”
Eyes on the Ice
Steger’s team will include some already-famous young explorers. Sam Branson, the 22-year-old son of British airline tycoon Richard Branson, is an experienced Arctic traveler. Also on the journey will be 27-year-old Norwegian Sigrid Ekran. Last year, Ekran became only the second woman in history to win Rookie of the Year for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. In fact, she will run this year’s Iditarod before reporting to Resolute, Canada, to join the expedition.
What they will see may be startling. Even Steger doesn’t know exactly what to expect. Climate change has already reshaped the geography of the Arctic, melting glaciers that past adventurers, and the Inuit who make their home in the far north, once journeyed on securely.
Their route will take them to the site where the Ward Ice Shelf experienced a major breakup in 2002. They will also see Ayles Ice Islandowhich broke off of a shelf and has been drifting southoand observe glaciers, sea ice and wildlife along the way. The team will be uploading videos, stories and photos to the website as they mush along, allowing armchair adventurers and kids in classrooms to follow their progress day to day. “We can actually bring the audience up there,” Steger says.
On a 1995 Arctic expedition, Steger had his own close encounter with climate change. The ice he was traveling across broke up unexpectedly early, thanks to warmer temperatures. He barely escaped. “It was pretty scary,” the adventurer recalls. “I’ve seen a lot of these changes myself over the past 15 years. The ice caps are just gone.” For the new expedition, Steger and his team are building a three-week safety cushion into their schedule. The changes in glaciers and ice shelves have made the far north a much more dangerous place to travel.
Take Action, Young People
Steger and his teammates hope to jolt young people into action on global warming. For their generation, says Sam Branson, “climate change is definitely going to be the biggest issue.” There’s still hope for avoiding the worst possible effects of global warming. But in the Arctic, at least, the greenhouse-gas buildup in the atmosphere means that some climate change is virtually unavoidable. “Within a decade or less, it’s going to be impossible to reach the North Pole by dog team, without flotation,” says Steger.
But these explorers would not take on such a difficult mission if they saw global warming as a lost cause. They want people to understand that changing their way of life can slow global warming. A world in which everyone is working to put the brakes on climate change, says Steger, would be a healthier place for all living things. “A cleaner world! Cleaner energy, from the wind or plants,” he told TFK. “Cleaner air and smarter ways of using resources.” Climate change is happening, but people can change too. Their willingness to change will determine the shape of Earth’s future.