Will Steger: World-Class Polar Explorer & Educator

Last week I had a great conversation with Will Steger. We both grew up in Richfield, Minnesota—a suburb on the southern border of Minneapolis. Our houses were about 150 yards apart. We reminisced about the fun we had as kids building forts, digging tunnels, playing Monopoly in my basement, and rafting on Woodlake before it became a marsh. We grew up in in a stable and safe neighborhood adjacent to open fields, hills and ponds— the kind of neighborhood where people never bothered to lock their doors because it was so safe, although Garrison Keillor noted, “Of course those locks were frozen shut six months of the year.”

Us kids learned to adapt to long winters and sub-zero temperatures, but Will took it to a completely different level. When he was nineteen years old, he bought a plot of wilderness land in northern Minnesota where he built a house and learned more of his survival techniques, including how to handle a sled dog team. He said he needed the sled dogs because his house was two miles from the nearest road.

I lost touch with Will when I went off to college and medical school and settled in California, but then I started hearing about his exploits, like the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without resupply in 1986 and his unsupported dogsled 1,600 mile south to north traverse of Greenland in 1988. In 1990, he received worldwide recognition for leading six members of the International Trans-Antarctic Expedition across Antarctica the long way— from the Antarctic Peninsula in the West to the Mirny Russian Base in the East, a distance about 1000 miles more than the distance between New York and Los Angeles. During his traverse of Antarctica, Will described “the coldest conditions imaginable on the planet,” like “-120° wind chills.” To my mind, his heroic, first-ever, dogsled crossing of the frigid, stormy and hazardous Antarctic continent ranks up there with the accomplishments of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

 Will’s exploits have given him first-hand knowledge of the effects of global climate change. He first saw Antarctica on July 26, 1989 from the window of a Twin Otter charter plane. (Too bad he missed the thrill of crossing Drakes passage on a ship to get to Antarctica.)  As he crossed the spine of mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula, he was shocked to find open waters dotted with tabular icebergs in the Weddell Sea. Normally there is dense sea ice in that area year-round, particularly along the western edge of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The first time I saw the Weddell Sea in January 1970 aboard the USCGC Glacier the sea surface was seventy-five to one hundred percent covered with pack ice—and we were not only further north than the location Will described, but also it was during the Antarctic summer. During the Antarctic winter, there is a fourfold expansion of sea ice around the continent, meaning Will should have been seeing solid icepack even before he reached the northernmost portion of the continent. A sixty-year record of temperatures now show that winter temperatures on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula have increased by 11°F and annual average temperatures by 5°F.

Will also experienced the effects of global warming in 1995 when he led a team of five scientists and educators on an epic 1,200 mile expedition between Russia and Ellesmere Island, Canada. They traversed the polar ice pack utilizing dogsleds and canoe sleds. The feat was much harder than he had anticipated because of the unexpected absence of polar ice. The going was much slower when they had to paddle through open waters. There is now so little sea ice during the summer that cruise ships can routinely sail the Northwest Passage.

When I spoke with Will last week he indicated that one of his inspirational heroes is also one of mine, the Norwegian polar explorer, inventor, researcher and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen. After his legendary polar explorations, Nansen went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for the work he did to help resettle refugees. Like Nansen, Will expressed the need to continue to contribute to society following his major accomplishments as an explorer. He said, “Nansen’s (commitment) was refugees, mine’s education.”

Will has done an excellent job fostering education. In 1991, he co-founded the Center for Global Environmental Education. Two years later he founded the World School for Adventure Learning at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota). In 2006, Will established the Will Steger Foundation to educate and encourage people to search for solutions to climate change. In 2014, he established the Steger Wilderness Center to demonstrate among other things practical solutions for creating a sustainable planet.

Over the course of his career, Will has received multiple awards and acknowledgments. In 1995 he received, for example, the John Oliver La Gorce Medal from the National Geographic Society. The medal is awarded for “accomplishments in geographic exploration, in the sciences and for public service to advance international understanding.” Other recipients of the award include Amelia Earhart, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen and Jacques Cousteau. I think Will richly deserves to be held in the same high esteem as these world-famous recipients, but it bothers me that he is not nearly as famous as most of them. For example, this past week I asked several people if they had ever heard of Will Steger. They had not, but they had all heard of Jacques Cousteau. I am a scuba diver, a Francophile and a big fan of Jacques Cousteau, but up much bigger fan of Will Steger, and unlike the other luminaries I just mentioned, Will is still very much alive and engaged in tremendous work.

I encourage you all to learn more about Will Steger and his educational activities, particularly his efforts regarding climate change. He’s very well known in Minnesota, but not so much in California where I live. Each year he gives more than 100 invited presentations for private and public events, mostly through the activities of the Will Steger Foundation. I’m hoping to get him included in the lecture series I go to in Los Angeles.


The Causes for Climate Change and the Post-Truth Era

“Post-Truth” Is the Word of the Year according to the Oxford English Dictionary, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It is easier to discard an objective fact if it is something one cannot see, touch or feel. Most people don’t notice that ocean levels have been increasing by three millimeters a year. Also, some can be convinced by other plausible causes for global warming, such as sunspots or non-man-made climate changes that occurred eons ago.

So what can be done about people who disagree with 97 percent of the world’s scientists who believe that global warming is secondary to human factors or who think that the last three years of record heat is merely an anomaly? One way is to sidestep the global warming issue and focus on something that can be seen and felt—air pollution. Most everyone will agree that air pollution is man-made. They also likely would agree that air pollution is detrimental to one’s health, particularly respiratory diseases. And if you can get people working to improve air pollution, they will also be improving a factor that contributes to global warming. Encouraging the use of electric cars, for example, decreases carbon dioxide emissions.

Another reason to focus on air pollution is we know something can be done about it to significantly remedy the problem in a relatively short period of time. Modified car engines and strict emission standards do make a difference. The first time I came to Los Angeles was in 1968 when the air quality was particularly bad. It was so bad that I seriously considered not taking a residency at UCLA in 1972. Before I accepted the position offered at UCLA, I called the Air Pollution Control Board and asked them about air pollution in Westwood where UCLA is located. They told me that of the permanent monitoring stations, the one in Westwood routinely measured the lowest levels of air pollution. I accepted the residency and have been happy living in Southern California ever since.

Even though there are so many more cars and people in LA now, and smog in the LA basin is inevitable, the air quality is actually much better than when I first moved here. In fact, it is 90 percent better than it was in 1960 and far better than in cities like Beijing that don’t have nearly as many cars as Los Angeles. In fact there are seventy-eight cities in China that have worse pollution than Los Angeles. It’s so bad in China that people actually buy cans of fresh mountain air just to get a few whiffs of non-polluted air. China is now actively interested in cleaning up their foul air, as evidenced by such things as their signing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Trump has threatened to undermine this international agreement that the US also signed. Let’s hope it is an idle threat.

Larsen, Shackleton and Global Warming

The Larsen C Ice Shelf has been in the news lately because a section of it larger than Rhode Island is on the verge of breaking off. This ice shelf is the fourth largest in Antarctica. The rapid acceleration of the 300 meter deep fissure in this ice shelf is undoubtedly related to global warming. Temperatures are rising faster in Antarctica than any other place on the globe. The main concern with the loss of an ice shelf is that it acts as a dam holding back land ice and it is the melting of the land ice that will have the most dramatic effect on sea levels.

The ice shelf is named after Carl Anton Larsen who was a Norwegian ship captain that discovered the ice shelf which bears his name in 1893. He was the first person to ski in Antarctica and the first to discover fossils there indicating that Antarctica was once part of a large warmer continent.

Larsen and Shackleton had parallel and intersecting lives. Like Shackleton, Larsen's ship, the Antarctic, was crushed in the Weddell Sea ice pack in 1903, forcing him and his crew to row lifeboats to Paulet Island where he and his crew survived over the winter by eating seals and penguins before being rescued by an Argentinian ship.

Larsen founded Grytviken, the whaling station on South Georgia Island, where Shackleton ended up after his heroic 800 mile journey from Elephant Island by lifeboat and foot. Shackleton and his men most likely would have died if they had not been able to reach this nearest outpost of civilization. Shackleton and the whalers made several attempts to sail to Elephant Island to rescue the bulk of his crew, but kept having to turn back because of storms and the impenetrable icepack. Three months later they finally succeeded.

Larsen championed the building of a Norwegian Lutheran Church in 1913 that remains in use to this day. It is the same church where the funeral services were held for Shackleton when he died in 1922. Shackleton was buried on South Georgia Island. Larsen died two years later while whaling in the Ross Sea.

Bad News, Good News and Climate Change

The election of Donald Trump—who has called human-caused climate change a “total hoax”—was bad news for those of us concerned about the effects of global warming. The good news is that he cannot legally do anything to stop the 190 countries who have vowed to reduce carbon dioxide pollution, nor can he unilaterally erase the US commitment to the Paris agreement. But he can slow or weaken the enforcement of President Obama’s climate rules. Maybe his views will change when rising sea levels continue to threaten his coastal properties, such as “Trump Hollywood” on the vulnerable coast of Florida. Even if that area is not flooded in the near future, Trump may soon find that insurance companies will no longer insure his threatened coastal properties, effectively making those properties worthless. Such a blow to his pocketbook is bound to get his attention.

One of the reasons why Trump was elected, in spite of his obvious characterological flaws, was because people generally make decisions based on their emotions more than logical reasoning. Studies have shown that it is primarily the emotional part of the brain that lights up (as seen in PET scans) when people make political decisions, regardless of their political persuasion. The data shows that people fearful of immigrants and terrorism in US strongly favored Trump, kind of a “Brexit” mentality.

For a similar reason, I think people can’t accept the data amassed showing that global warming is not a hoax. From an emotional perspective, it is more palatable to deny it. But that denial will probably fade as more concrete events directly impact people, like flooding in Florida or the historic drought in California. Who knows…maybe even Trump believes in global warming, but declared otherwise to win votes from the people most likely to vote for him. What politicians say and what they truly believe are often at odds.

What was bad news for me about Trump’s election was more than offset by the news I received two days later. I just learned we can look forward to our second grandchild. That’s a global warming of my heart.



Paris Climate Agreement signed and sealed!

Twenty-eight more nations signed the Paris Climate Agreement on October 5th, 2016, giving the agreement enough to cross the threshold needed. Seventy-three countries accounting for 56.87% of the worlds greenhouse emissions - including the US and China - are now formally parties to the treaty. Obama described the news as a "turning point for our planet". The international agreement passed in record time, partly out of fears of what Trump might do if he was elected. U.N, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “What once seemed unthinkable is now unstoppable.” The accord goes into effect one day before the US presidential election. 

Although the accord is not legally binding, countries are required to report on their emissions and their progress towards meeting the goal of limiting rising global temperatures to much less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit - and avoid what geoscience professor Michael Oppenheimer described as “falling over a very steep cliff.” A good deal of hard work remains for the nations of the world to achieve the goals that have been set.


Polar Regions, Vikings and Tomatoes

So what’s the relationship between the three things in the title you may ask? Since I’m three quarters Norwegian by heritage and I’ve always loved stories about exploring, it’s not surprising that I developed an interest in the vast explorations during the heyday of the Vikings. Their explorations covered an area including North America, Greenland, Europe, the Mediterranean and Russia. And they or their direct descendants not only settled many of these areas, but they also help set up major trading economies and helped establish stable governments, particularly in Russia, Iceland, and Sicily. And today Viking descendants are helping us in other ways.

The time I spent in Antarctica aboard the Glacier significantly increased my interest in polar regions, which led to my reading more about important Norwegian explorers like Nansen and Amundsen. The direct and indirect influence Norwegians have had on both the Arctic and the Antarctic is quite impressive.

I’ve always liked tomatoes, but modern day tomatoes don’t taste as good as the kinds I had more than sixty years ago when I was a little kid in Minnesota. It turns out that those good tasting tomatoes were less uniform, uglier and harder to transport. Round red tomatoes were not only easier to ship, but they also were more aesthetically pleasing and sold better. It wasn’t long before that was the only kind of tomato readily available. More recently, heirloom tomatoes are making a comeback, thanks to those who saved the seeds of the older varieties.

So what is it that links tomatoes, Vikings and polar regions? The connection has to do with plant seeds in general and all those plants that are dying out because of global warming, natural disasters, depleted soils, agribusiness practices, etc. It turns out there is a Global Seed Vault housed in a large tunnel and bunker in Svalbard, Norway— an island archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The seed bank there opened in 2008 and now stores seeds from close to 900,000 plant varieties. The state-of-the-art facility collecting the seeds is funded by the Government of Norway and is the result of a partnership between Norway, the Nordic Genetic Research Center and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

We need to do all we can to preserve and maintain the planets dwindling biodiversity. Hats off to the government of Norway and their partners.

Rising Temperatures in Antartica

This past year was the hottest year on record and 2016 is on track to eclipse that record. Rising temperatures in Antarctica are going to have the most dramatic effect on sea levels. Global warming and how it relates to Antarctica will be one of the things I will be covering in this blog in more detail. But first a bit of my philosophy.

One of my philosophies is that there is almost invariably something good about the bad things that happen in one’s life. Sometimes the good aspect is not readily apparent, but becomes clear later on. Say, for example, you get hurt badly in an accident, but then while rehabilitating yourself from that injury, you learn a great deal about how to recover from subsequent injuries. And maybe you learn how to prevent a similar injury in the future. I could give many examples, but I think you get the idea.

So using this philosophical approach, I can actually find something good about Donald Trump’s candidacy. He does not believe in man-made global warming and if he became president he would nullify the historic global climate accord reached in Paris by sixty nations last December. I thought the climate accord was a done deal, but that is not so. Like many things, the devil is in the details. In order for the accord to become law, it must be approved by at least fifty-five nations and those giving their approval must be responsible for at least 55 percent of the climate altering missions. Even if all sixty nations formally approved the accord—as China and the US did recently—they still would only account for 48 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Normally it takes several years if not decades for an international agreement to become law, but thanks to Donald Trump it looks like the accord can become law this year. At a UN ceremony two days ago fourteen more countries said they would approve the accord this year. For many of these countries, the matter has become much more urgent based on their fears that Trump could become president.