Witness to a changing world

GRANITE FALLS -- Having visited both of the earth's poles, Minnesota's famed explorer Will Steger has witnessed many of the dramatic, climatic changes occurring in the Arctic regions.

GRANITE FALLS -- Having visited both of the earth's poles, Minnesota's famed explorer Will Steger has witnessed many of the dramatic, climatic changes occurring in the Arctic regions.

Yet most of these changes have otherwise "gone unseen,'' Steger told hundreds of students at the Yellow Medicine East High School in Granite Falls on Monday. There are literally thousands of square miles of remote Arctic where humans rarely step foot. The indigenous people, who make their homes in these regions, are few in number and their voices are rarely heard, he explained.

Steger and a team of three other Minnesotans are headed to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic this February. They will bring along the eyes and ears of the hundreds of students he addressed in Granite Falls, as well as thousands at other schools scattered throughout the country.

Steger and members of the Global Warming 101 Expedition will travel for four months by dogsled over the island, which lies between the mainland of Canada and Greenland. They will travel in the company of Inuit hunters. The Inuit people still depend on their ability to hunt for much of their diet, said Steger.

The Minnesota visitors will carry laptop computers and video cameras with satellite links. They will beam pod casts and host interactive exchanges over the Internet with students who will follow their journey in their classrooms.


Their four-month odyssey will include visits to four different Inuit villages. Students will hear first hand from the people who are seeing their way of life change in dramatic fashion.

Theo Ikumnaq, 51, is among the Inuit hunters who will help guide the Steger expedition and speak to the students in Minnesota, according to Elizabeth Andre, a member of the expedition. Andre is completing her doctorate in environmental studies at the University of Minnesota and is a former leader with Outward Bound. She said Ikumnaq was born in an igloo and lived much of his life in one. Seal oil provided its light and heat.

Yet the challenges that Ikumnaq faces today are in many ways far more formidable than the daily struggle for survival that his ancestors knew. The sea ice, which the polar bears and the Inuit people need for hunting seals, is disappearing as summers grow longer and winters shorter. In many places, an eight-month period for hunting on the sea ice has now been reduced to four months, said Steger.

Steger, whose visit was sponsored by Fagen Engineering and Construction of Granite Falls, has been speaking to students and community groups across the state about global warming and the many solutions to it. He said that until recently, the topic was considered controversial by many schools and treated much like the debate over evolution.

Attitudes have changed greatly, according to Steger. Schools and the public in general have become much more attentive to the issue, he said.

"THE Will Steger?'' That's the response Karen Norell, principal of the YME High School, said she offered when Diane Fagen of Fagen Engineering called and asked if the school would consider hosting a visit by the explorer.

Norell said students in math, science and social studies classes from grades 5-12 will be following Steger's expedition to the Baffin Island. Along with documenting the science of climate change evident in the Arctic, the expedition will also show the profound cultural changes being experienced by the Inuit people as the modern world encroaches on theirs.

Global climate change is occurring at rates three to five times faster in Arctic regions than in the mid-latitudes, such as Minnesota. On Baffin Island, the changes have led some familiar animals to migrate away, and new ones to come. Andre said that Ikumnaq told them that the island's elders do not have names for some of the animals they now see, such as robins and waxwings.


The Inuit have made Baffin Island their home for more than 8,000 years.

Steger told the students how the ice sheet that floats atop the Arctic Ocean at the earth's North Pole has shrunk by nearly one-third in the last 24 years. Steger walked across a sheet of ice that averaged eight feet in thickness when he was the first to reach the North Pole without re-supply in 1986. Today, the sheet has melted to an average thickness of six feet.

Even more dramatic, Steger told the YME students about his 3,471-mile crossing of the Antarctic continent in 1989-90. The trek started with a 200-mile crossing of the Larsen 'B' ice shelf. It took 20 days to cross the 1,000 foot thick ice shelf the size of Iowa.

In March of 2002, scientists were shocked as cameras on satellites documented its rapid demise. It began melting, broke up and collapsed into the ocean in a six-week period.

Calamities like this do not have to be our fate, according to Steger. He said there are solutions to reverse global warming, such as tapping wind power for electricity and turning to ethanol and biomass sources for fuel.

Steger had the interest of his student audience. High School Principal Norell was not surprised. She said afterwards that students are very interested and familiar with the topics of global climate change and alternative energy. "Kids have a lot more information than we think they have,'' she said.

Beginning in February, they will be picking up even more as they follow Steger and his expedition as they traverse 1,200 miles on Baffin Island.

To learn more, visit Steger's web site at .

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