Will Power

Standout Q&A with Will Steger

Will Steger

Will Steger has traveled tens of thousands of miles by kayak and dogsled for more than 45 years, leading teams on some of the most significant polar expeditions in history. His work earned him the Lifetime Achievement award from National Geographic Adventure Magazine in 2007. More >>

Dogsledding from Russia to Canada via the North Pole? Check. Trekking 1,600 miles across Greenland? Check. Traveling the longest-possible route across Antarctica? Check. In the past 45 years, polar explorer and environmental educator Will Steger has journeyed to the ends of the earth to raise awareness for some of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet. A Minnesota native, Steger is a true eyewitness to the dramatic environmental changes occurring in polar regions. When he isn’t exploring, he and his foundation are working to catalyze national and international leadership on climate change. Momentum caught up with Steger shortly after he returned from “Expedition Copenhagen” with a delegation of 12 Midwestern youth.

How was your experience at the climate conference?

It was very positive. … We saw international cooperation around climate change. Few issues have ever brought the world together like this, in a positive way where everyone’s looking for a solution. … I think it was premature to think we were going to get a treaty out of this first step, but it was the first major step. Working in climate issues for 20 years, this was a different stage, a different plateau, almost an affirmation of my hard work behind the scenes to see this actually happening.

What environmental changes have you observed over the years?

Every ice shelf I’ve traveled on is disintegrated. … We’ve lost almost 50 percent of the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean in the summer now. So, big changes. … And the speed at which this is happening is extremely alarming.

How are indigenous communities adapting?

The Inuit people are basically marine people. … The way of getting their meat from the sea is on the ice—seal, walrus and so forth, fishing. With the change of the ice, their hunting is being restricted; migration patterns are changing. Their life is upside down. A lot of communities now are going into fishing rather than hunting. Inuit are very adaptable people, so I think in the long run they’re going to be just fine because they can adapt to the climate. … When you start losing the snow pack on the Himalayas and that water—3 million people rely on it for energy and food in one way or another. Twenty years from now, that’s going to be diminishing. Can we adapt to that? That’s the question.

Where do you find inspiration?

Working on the environment is like pushing a big stone up a hill: It usually rolls back on your feet a little bit. It hurts, but you’ve just got to get your momentum and push it up, and you get an inch at a time. … Copenhagen was the ultimate inspiration because here was a dream come true. All the countries in the world, all the power brokers of the world are there around one mission: trying to figure this out. … That was inspiring to me, to look at where this has come in 20 years. In the mid-’90s, I couldn’t say “global warming” in the media because I’d lose my sponsors. It was that bad. But here we are. It’s just amazing the progress we’re making.

NATHAN MUELLER is a research assistant with the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative.