GRANITE FALLS - Will Steger has led dog-sled expeditions to reach the North Pole, traverse the length of Greenland and cross Antarctica, witnessing firsthand the dramatic transformations occurring due to global climate change.
He no longer needs to leave Minnesota to see what’s happening.
“We’re now seeing obvious extremes here,’’ Steger told a crowd of more than 200 Sunday evening at the Granite Falls Lutheran Church in Granite Falls.
Steger and J. Drake Hamilton, a scientist with the nonpartisan Fresh Energy, are back on the road in Minnesota. They are leading a new series of presentations to describe the climate changes Steger has observed as a polar explorer. They are also urging Minnesotans to support clean energy solutions to reduce carbon emissions.
They asked attendees in Granite Falls to sign cards and urge Xcel Energy to reconsider its decision to continue burning coal at its two oldest units at the Sherco power facility in Sherburne County. The units burn about three trainloads of coal a day and, based on 2010 data, release 13.6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually to the atmosphere, according to Drake Hamilton.
It is becoming more economical for utilities to switch to clean energy options such as wind power in place of coal, and there’s no accounting for the societal costs associated with extremes in weather, she said.
She pointed out that Minnesota has experienced three one-in-1,000-year flood events since 2004. The U.S. experienced 11 disasters of more than $1 billion damage each in 2012.
Steger saw the extremes of Minnesota’s changing climate in May 2012, when drought conditions led to a forest fire that raced 18 miles in one day to the outskirts of his hometown of Ely. Ten days later, torrential rains triggered massive flooding in Duluth.
And yet, the changes Steger has seen in the Arctic region portend even greater harm. In Greenland, he said the melting glaciers are sending roughly the volume of two Amazon Rivers into the oceans.
“What are you looking at here is the beginning of the great sea level rise,’’ Steger told his Granite Falls audience as large video screens displayed images of a calving glacier dropping a slab of ice into the ocean the size of the IDS building in Minneapolis.
The winter ice on the Arctic Ocean has shrunk in the last 20 years from an average thickness of eight feet to four feet. The area it covers has shrunk roughly by half too.
Steger’s dog sled trip to the North Pole in 1995 may be the last for him. It’s no longer possible to reach the North Pole without a canoe, kayak or floating sled due to the increase in the areas of open water.
Steger and Drake Hamilton nevertheless remain optimistic. Asked why they persevere, Drake Hamilton said they want to be able to answer future generations who will ask what we did in 2013 about climate change. “We think the answer to that is we did everything we could and it worked,’’ said Drake Hamilton.