"It's almost as if Antarctica didn't want us there and was continually trying to kill us," says Will Steger of his seven-month dogsled expedition across the southern pole. But the journey wasn't just arduous and unprecedented, it was an eye opener for this hardened explorer. Steger and his team crossed the Larsen B ice shelf, a frozen and seemingly immovable mass that later crumbled into the sea, becoming a chilling symbol of a climate in collapse. Though he's broken countless records, Will Steger's current expedition is educating the world (and especially kids) about the science and economics of climate change. But his days of traversing the tundra with his sled dogs are far from over.
Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: What is it about the top and bottom of the planet, these freezing poles, that you find so intriguing?
Will Steger: I think being raised in Minnesota had something to do with it, but I was born with an adventurous spirit and I've always followed through with that since I was a young kid. The north and the south, the Antarctic area, are really true wilderness and the true frontiers of the world. I sought those out. mainly through the adventure of dog sleds and skiing and kiting. The attraction to me of north and south is the adventure and the pristine environment.
TH: One of your most famous expeditions was crossing Antarctica. The book you wrote, called "Crossing Antarctica," just came out in it's second edition. You tell the remarkable story of six men from six countries on a seven-month journey. Even after reading your book, it's hard to imagine really what it feels like to travel, day after day, for months on end, in this sea of ice and snow. Is there any way to describe what that feels like?
Steger: It's like another planet. It's cold like you've never experienced. I love the cold weather, but Antarctica was a little extreme. The rest of the globe, it has a sense of place and feeling and spirit and wildlife and culture. But this has none of it. It's almost like Mars. For seven months, we were in a total void of life. Extreme weather, wind chills 100 below were very common. It's almost as if Antarctica didn't want us there and was continually trying to kill us in the process.
I don't necessarily seek out that type of adventure, but Antarctica was really a very foreign place. It was like the ice ages before human beings were on the planet. It was very harsh.
TH: You write in the book that most people see Antarctica as "a cold hell anchoring the bottom of the globe." But ecologically it's crucial, right?
Steger: It is. If you took an apple and you cut an apple in half, around the outside of the apple you have the thin red skin. The rest of it's all white. That's exactly what Antarctica's like. The skin of the apple is the coastline, and maybe 20 miles into the interior it is very rich in incredible wildlife. Penguins and seals and killer whales. Everything. It's really, utterly amazing. This is the area where we get most of our impressions of Antarctica.
It also anchors weather systems. Antarctica's almost like the thermostat of the world. The cold and the oceans around it really dictate the climate around the world, which is now changing, because the ice on Antarctica is starting to change.
TH: In your travels, what have you seen that indicates the climate falling out of whack and expressing imbalance?
Steger: The big imbalance right now in Antarctica is what's called the Antarctic Peninsula. The Antarctic Peninsula is like a thumb that sticks out towards the South American continent. It's about 800 miles long and very narrow. The widest point is probably 80 or 90 miles. Buttressed around it are ice shelves where the glaciers literally float out over the ocean, causing these shelves of ice to be up to 1,000 feet thick. These buttress against the glaciers and keep them in place.
Well, nine of these ice shelves in the last 20 years have either gone or are in the process of disintegrating. This would normally occur, if it occurred at all, over a period of almost 10,000 years. But it's occurring over decades. So you have massive changes where these ice shelves are breaking off. And in return, the glaciers that they hold in place are now falling real quickly into the ocean. So now we're starting to see a sea level rise from the addition of the ice from Antarctica and Greenland.
So the Antarctic Peninsula is probably the largest of changes that we're seeing on the climate in the world right now. And then, as the sea ice starts melting too, the ocean currents are now changing. In most cases, the ocean currents are becoming stronger, which is now starting to take more of these large ice shelves. Which in turn is going to make the sea level rise. The process is already in full swing. This has all happened within 20 years.
20 years ago we crossed the Larson A and B ice shelf. It took us 30 days to cross the surface by dog team. Both A and B shelves are now gone.
20 years ago, when I first saw them from the air, it seemed to me like these were permanent. I had never seen such a gigantic feature on the globe as these ice shelves.
And then I read in the paper eight years ago, on the ninth page of the Minneapolis paper, I think it was. I read the headline: "Larson B Ice Shelf Disintegrates."
It was really a wake up call to me. I knew global warming was happening, but I had no idea how fast it's happening. Antarctica, in many ways, is really the beginning of this. It's where we're starting to see the major changes.
TH: Nobody realized how quickly these ice shelves could just give way. Right?
Steger: I researched this route with the glaciologist in '88, '87. This is like three years before it disintegrated and a year and a half before we traveled on it. This was in British Antarctic Survey in England, and I remember the scientists literally closing the door, and they looked over their shoulder and made us promise not to tell anyone what they were going to tell us. And I say, "Sure, we'll promise."
At that point they were starting to see huge cracks forming on the shore side of this ice shelf. But the surprising thing is that it caught all the scientists off-guard, in terms of how fast it's disintegrating.
And this is happening now in the Arctic. 50% of the summer sea ice disappeared in '07. That was, again, another shocker to the climate ice scientists. With a lot of these changes are, even the conservative scientists are being thrown back on their chairs. So we really need to pay attention here to what's happening.