Renowned Arctic explorer and Minnesotan Will Steger leads two well-regarded organizations. The soon-to-be-opened Will Steger Wilderness Center in Ely is designed to bring small groups of leaders and decision makers together to do environmental problem solving in a wilderness setting (learn more). And Minneapolis-based Climate Generation, formerly known as the Well Steger Foundation, works to educate and engage people in solutions to climate change with school curricula, mentorship programs, public education, and online resources. In an interview with MPCA’s Shannon Martin, Steger described his work as building “two legs of a legacy” — policy and education — to address climate change.
MPCA: What are some of the most significant changes you’ve witnessed in the arctic since your first exploration in 1986?
WS: The arctic is totally different, it’s totally changed. You no longer can reach the North Pole by dog team from land. In the last decade is when it’s really deteriorated. Every ice shelf that I’ve been on, both polar regions, are not there anymore. They have collapsed and are gone. Winters are shorter. For the most part you are seeing, like we do here but maybe more extreme, later freeze ups and longer thaw periods.
MPCA: Do you think there will be a time when we don’t have freeze ups at all?
WS: What’s changing rapidly is how that [polar] cold is distributed. For example, what seems to be happening is the polar westerlies, which is this jet stream that surrounds the globe around our latitude — this jet stream had great angular momentum. In other words it was like a refrigerator door that keeps the cold in. But, now that jet stream is weakening and you open the door to the refrigerator and that cold comes right out. In the last seven years, the studies show that this cold will not be contained to just the polar areas and that causes all sorts of trouble. Strong cold where it’s not supposed to be meets warm air and you have tornados and hurricanes and real chaotic weather.
MPCA: Minnesota has one of the oldest citizen water monitoring programs in the country. Dedicated volunteers take lake and stream clarity readings as well as track lake ice conditions. How do you think citizen science initiatives like this are changing the face of science?
WS: It’s a chance for an individual person, who’s not a scientist, to contribute in a scientific way to the data that we do need to track these changes. I think for about 25 years, up in the Ely area, I recorded precipitation on a daily basis. I worked with the state on that and every month I’d file a report. Personally it was very interesting and to have a thousand observers in different areas of the state, it adds to the real hard core science.”
MPCA: There’s evidence that ice is forming on lakes later in the fall and leaving earlier in the spring in Minnesota, which is a concerning trend.
WS: We are having a change of climate in Minnesota, and we are an agricultural state that relies on the climate to give us the proper conditions so we can grow what we need. So our economy, in addition to recreation, is tied to this. Look at California for an example. I think everyone should be concerned. Concern in itself is okay, but it’s kind of negative. Everyone should be involved in the solution. We have a lot of opportunities here to solve. The fact is we will have to adapt to a changing climate. But there’s still, economically, huge opportunity here.
MPCA: Talk about the Steger Wilderness Center.
WS: I’ve been working on the center for about 27 years. Wilderness is the most inspiring place, and I thought I could put together a center for small groups of leaders and decision makers in order to problem solve. This center is nearing completion right now and we will be doing our first pilot program next year. Actually, the Center is really well timed — I didn’t see the climate problems coming to head this fast back when we built it.”
MPCA: After decades of exploring and activism, is there a point at which you will be able to say, 'Alright, time to punch out.'
WS: I don’t think so. I’m pretty relaxed doing this work. Climate Generation is really going on its own now. I’m building both these programs [Climate Generation and Wilderness Institute] so I can work in policy and on the programs. I’m basically creating two entities, two legs of a legacy. I will always be involved in climate and energy policy, educational programs, and working with leaders. My whole life is about exploring.