WILLMAR — We know Will Steeger as a modern-day polar explorer who earns a place in history for impressive firsts.
He led the first confirmed expedition to the North Pole by dogsled without re-supply in 1986, and was the first to cross Antarctica by foot in 1990.
During a visit to Willmar on Tuesday, he expressed his own surprise at realizing that his legacy will not be his much-celebrated “firsts,” but for being the last.
He’s the last of the polar explorers to travel by dog sled to the North Pole.
“Believe it or not you can no longer travel to the pole by dog team because of the open water,’’ Steeger told a small gathering before his public presentation at Vinje Lutheran Church. “In order to get to the pole you need some form of floatation, kayak, canoe or sled that floats.’’
A couple of hours later, some 360 people filled the church to hear the famous eye-witness to climate change.
Climate change is showing itself in dramatic ways in the Arctic.
Until five years ago, some 90 percent of the Arctic Ocean remained snow and ice covered through the entire year. Last year, two-thirds of the ice- nearly an area the size of the United States- broke up.
In Greenland, many of the glaciers are sliding into the ocean at the rate of 15 miles per year.
The equivalent of two, Amazon Rivers gush from the melting ice in the summer months.
“The changes I’ve seen are biblical. It is hard to find words for it,’’ said Steeger during his talk prior to the public event.
We are all becoming witnesses to global climate change, said Steeger. He noted that scientists predicted that global climate change would show itself first through the dramatic changes being witnessed in the arctic regions. They also predicted it would be followed by an increasing frequency in weather extremes in mid-latitude regions, such as Minnesota.
We’re certainly seeing the extremes in Minnesota, according to Steeger and J. Drake Hamilton, a scientist with Fresh Energy who also spoke in Willmar. They pointed to the record books that show the average temperature in Minnesota has been rising at a rate faster than the global average, and that the incidence of torrential rains has increased by 50 percent in recent years.
They provided a sobering account of the science documenting climate change, but also offered encouraging news on what is being done to reverse it. Steeger’s ultimate legacy may be not as the last to witness climate change in the arctic, but as the first to inspire people in Minnesota to action.
He is optimistic that we will respond. Seeing the size of the crowd in Willmar supports his outlook.
“I am totally convinced that the time is right now in Minnesota,’’ said Steeger to the small group before the public presentation. “We can sit around the table and look at the science, at the problems, and then figure out what we’re going to do about it and start building our new economy.’’