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20 Years Later - NEW INTRODUCTION
On July 26, 1989, I saw Antarctica for the first time. Along with my expedition partner, French doctor and explorer Jean-Louis Etienne, and our teammates—Victor Boyarsky (Russia), Geoff Somers (UK), Keizo Funatsu (Japan) and Qin Dahe (China)—I’d been training and dreaming of this moment for several years.
The expedition was assembled on King George Island, one hundred miles off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. From there we shuttled man, gear, and thirty-six sled dogs south on six Twin Otter flights, to our starting point on the Larsen A Ice Shelf. I was on the second flight with Jean-Louis and my team of ten dogs.
Once we lifted off and cleared the mountains of KGI, the yellow light of midwinter filtered through the windows and shimmered on the dogs’ hair. The vibrations of the twin engines calmed the dogs’ excitement and put most of them to sleep. Out the foggy window I caught my first sight of Antarctica; in the far distance I could just make out the ice-capped mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula rising out of the ocean.
But the massive continent seemed somehow out of place. I had expected to see the Antarctica surrounded by sea ice. Instead, rather than being a sea filled with ice, the ocean was wide open, filled with blue waves, void of even the smallest iceberg. We approached the Peninsula from the west, over the Bellinghausen Sea, and then made a crossing over the sheer-faced mountains that make up the narrow backbone of the Peninsula. Clouds hugged the high peaks, and below them I could see green ice and massive crevasse fields. At nine thousand feet we topped the final mountain range, and in the distance I saw a blue metallic color between the high mountain peaks. To my surprise, the Weddell Sea was also open! Just seventy-five years earlier, the dense pack ice of this sea was strong enough to crush Shackleton’s ship, Endurance. The area I could see was a mixture of tabular icebergs and open water. When I had researched our route across the Larsen Ice shelf, the scientists had told me about the unusually warm summers on the
Peninsula and that they thought these might be the first signs of global warming. I had studied climate all of my life and was well read on the topic. Global warming—an issue with severe implications for our planet and dangerous impacts for our way of life—was something scientists thought was going to happen generations from now, but it was an instant reality to me when I got my first glimpse of the continent and then the Weddell Sea.
We flew out over the Weddell, which was studded with flat-top tabular icebergs stretching in long lines towards horizon. I was struck by the Larsen Ice Shelf’s massiveness. I had never seen anything of such large proportion. Icebergs that had broken off it looked as big as the glaciers lining the continent, ice walls rising a hundred feet above the water. The shelf was enormous and seemed to go on forever southwards.
Looking out the window of the small, vibrating plane, down onto the seemingly infinite ice of the Larsen, I recorded the following in a small cassette player: “July 26th, 1989: It is Antarctica, which I am seeing for the first time today, that is going to be the main player in the destiny of the human race. It is this snow and ice. If the atmosphere continues to warm, this ice right in this area is going to break off into the ocean.”
At the time it didn’t seem possible that an ice mass this large could actually break up; it seemed the Larsen was as permanent as the Antarctic continent itself. But thirteen years later, on March 2, 2002, I was thumbing through the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and on page nine in bold print was a headline that shocked me: Larsen B Ice Shelf Disintegrates. At first I thought it couldn’t be true: it seemed like science fiction, and it would take days before I could grasp the extent of this global environmental catastrophe.
There is no way to comprehend the massiveness of the disintegration of the Larsen Ice Shelf unless you have skied and walked across it. In that early winter of 1989, it would take us thirty-one days, from July 27 to August 26, to cross its full length. Every day, camp after camp, through storm, whiteouts and clear weather, we skied and pushed our sleds becoming intimately familiar with the ice shelf that treated us for the most part with safe surface conditions.
After we crossed the Larsen we gained altitude, and for the next six months and 3,400 miles we experienced the coldest conditions imaginable on the planet. Our introduction was two months (sixty consecutive days) of winter storms along the Peninsula. It was only through teamwork and the combined efforts of strength and spirit that we survived. Finally we distanced ourselves from the storms as we rose up to 10,000 feet on the Antarctic Plateau. There the weather was milder, with temperatures moderating to about –20°F during the twenty- four-hour light of summer. We reached the South Pole on December 13th, 1989, and then crossed the Area of Inaccessibility on the eastern side of the plateau. On our descent, we again met severe storms as the sobering darkness of our second Antarctic winter returned. We learned not to trust Antarctica, and only sixteen miles from our final destination a polar storm came in from the high plateau. That storm nearly cost us the life of our teammate Keizo Funatsu, who became lost when he went out to feed his dogs, was caught in a huge white-out as the storm intensified, and ended up spending the night alone in the storm, curled up in a ball, blowing snow his only protection.
On March 3, 1990, we finished our expedition at the Russian base of Mirnny, on the far eastern side of the continent. While the expedition was complete, our hard work was not over. I would spend the next year working with world and U.S. leaders on efforts to preserve Antarctica from mineral exploration. On October 4, 1991, the minerals clause of the Antarctic Treaty was officially signed into law, prohibiting any exploitation of minerals or oil for fifty years.
That was just the beginning of my efforts to protect the Polar Regions I had come to know so well, as global temperatures in the 1990s rose dramatically. I continued my expeditions in the north and was an eyewitness to many of the shocking changes in the Arctic that have occurred as carbon dioxide levels from the burning of fossils fuels have soared around the planet. On three expeditions to the North Pole in the 1990s, I saw the reflective layer of the ice of the Arctic Ocean melt away. On a score of expeditions in the Canadian Arctic over the last twenty years, I experienced earlier breakups of sea ice each year, changes in animal migration patterns, and the dangerous ongoing release of methane from the thawing permafrost. On the Greenland ice cap, I have been stopped by rivers of water at five thousand feet and have seen rapid breakup at sea level of glaciers, some of which are moving more than seven miles a year.
These experiences compelled me to launch myself into the public through a newfound commitment to propel global-warming solutions. The Will Steger Foundation (www.willstegerfoundation.org), a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis, combines my passion for education and the environment by educating, inspiring, and empowering the public in a campaign to solve global warming. We are fostering international cooperation and leadership through educational programming about dynamic climate change, working with decision- makers to push for a stronger climate and energy policy, and engaging young people in climate-change solutions.
The loss of the Larsen ice shelf on Antarctica demonstrated the seriousness of our complacency in facing the environmental challenges that lay before us. While this isolated environment may seem like another world, each melting drop that falls from the ice ripples out to the modern world with increasing impact. We must act decisively to educate ourselves to the threats and the solutions to global warming, and as individuals we must unify around the task at hand. And above all, as we demonstrated when we crossed Antarctica, we can overcome any obstacle through the spirit of international cooperation. - Will Steger, October 2009
In addition to the Crossing Antarctica book, you might also be interested in the Lunchbreak poster from Will's 1989-90 crossing of Antarctica - autographed copy.