Two decades after leading a multi-national team on the first complete dogsled traverse of Antarctica, polar adventurer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence emeritus Will Steger reflects on the expedition–and what climate change means for our planet.
On March 3, 1990, a team of six men from six different countries and their 42 sled dogs completed the first-ever dogsled crossing of the Antarctic continent. The 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition, led by Will Steger, travelled 3,741 miles in seven months, enduring temperatures as low as -54 degrees Fahrenheit and winds as high as 100 miles per hour.
The landmark expedition could not be replicated today: not only have dogs been banned from Antarctica, but the Larsen A and B Ice Shelves, on which the team travelled for a month, no longer exist.
Later this week, the team will gather in Minnesota for the first time in 20 years to reflect on the journey–and on the dramatic changes taking place across the world’s most frigid continent.
By Will Steger
On July 26,1989, I saw Antarctica for the first time from the foggy window of the Twin Otter charter plane that carried my six expedition team members and 40+ dogs.
To the distant south, I could see the ice-capped mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula rise up out of the ocean, but the massive continent seemed out of place. I expected to see the Antarctic continent surrounded by sea ice. The ocean, rather than being a sea of ice, was wide open. Below was blue wavy water void of even the smallest iceberg.
We approached the peninsula from the west, from the Bellingshausen Sea, and then made a crossing over the sheer-faced mountains that make up the narrow backbone of the peninsula. At 9,000 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 75 years earlier, the dense pack ice of this sea was strong enough to crush Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance. The area I could see was a mixture of tabular icebergs and open water.
When I 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 this might be the first signs of climate change. I had studied climate all of my life and I was well read on the topic. Climate change–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 away, but was an instant reality when I got my first glimpse of the continent and the Weddell Sea.
Looking across the Weddell Sea from the plane, I was struck by the Larsen ice shelf’s massive size. I had never seen anything of such large proportion. Icebergs that broke off looked the size of actual glaciers, and the ice walls stood 100 feet above the water. Looking down onto the seemingly infinite ice of the Larsen, I recorded the following in a small cassette player:
“July 26th 1989: It’s Antarctica that we are looking at that is going to be the main player in the destiny of the human race. It’s this snow and ice here. If the atmosphere warms up, the 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 that the Larsen was as permanent as the Antarctic continent itself. But in March 2002, I was thumbing through the Minneapolis Star Tribune when on page nine in bold print I read, “Larsen B Ice Shelf Disintegrates.” It seemed at first that this was science fiction, and it took 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 ski and walk every step of the way. It took us 31 days–from July 27 to August 26, 1989–to cross the full length of this ice shelf.
Every day, camp after camp, through storm, whiteouts and clear weather, we skied and pushed our sleds. We became intimately familiar with the ice shelf that treated us for the most part with safe surface conditions.
While crossing the Larsen, the ice shelf felt very stable to us. Scientists at Queen’s University estimate the shelf could have been stable for as long as 12,000 years.
Over the course of three days in 2002, however, a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island broke free from the Larsen B ice shelf. Larsen A had already disintegrated in 1995. The speed of the collapse surprised even the scientists who were monitoring the shelf. Scientists link the collapse with climate change.
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. It was only through teamwork and combined efforts of strength and spirit that we survived.
On March 3rd, 1990, we finished our expedition at the Mirny Russian base on the eastern side of the continent.
While the expedition was complete, our hard work was not over. I spent the next year working with world leaders and in Washington D.C. on the preservation of Antarctica from mineral exploration. Finally on October 4th, 1991, the minerals clause of the Antarctic Treaty was officially signed into law, which prohibited any activity relating to mineral resources.
Antarctica has not just lost the Larsen A and B ice shelves. Twenty years after I crossed Antarctica, a total of eight ice shelves have fully or partially collapsed along the Antarctic Peninsula, and the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula has warmed faster than virtually any place on Earth.
The question now, as humanity pours greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate, is not whether Antarctica will begin to warm in earnest, but how rapidly. A 60-year temperature record on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula taken at a research base on the continent paints a stark picture: winter temperatures have increased by 11 degrees Fahrenheit, and annual average temperatures by 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Ninety percent of 244 glaciers along the western Antarctic Peninsula have retreated since 1940.
My efforts to protect our planet’s polar regions had only just begun as the 1990s saw global temperatures drastically rise. While I have been focusing my energy on climate change, policy and education through the Will Steger Foundation, my team members have continued their personal commitments to scientific research, education and exploration.
As the team gathers in Minnesota for the first time since crossing Antarctica this week, twenty years later, we will take stock of all that we accomplished, and of what has changed in each of us and on the continent we became intimately familiar with. We modeled true international cooperation, endured minus-120-degree wind chills and deep crevasses to demonstrate to the world that Antarctica was worth protecting. Along the way, we inspired millions of young people to care about Earth’s coldest places, ultimately changing the lives of a number of educators and students. The statement our International Trans-Antarctica Expedition Team shared with the global community when we reached the end of the expedition is still relevant today:
“The 1990s will be a decade of global change, demanding a new way of thinking and renewed commitment to action. This generation must reverse the tide of destruction and strive to preserve the future. As we learned anew in crossing Antarctica, the only limit to achievement is the limit you place on your dreams. As you seek your own way in the world, look beyond personal gain to your responsibility as stewards of the Earth. Let your vision be guided by hope, your path be adventurous, and the power of your thought be directed toward the betterment of tomorrow.”
This Friday and Saturday, December 10 and 11, join the six team members of the 1990 International Trans-Antarctica Expedition to celebrate the anniversary of their landmark seven-month dogsled expedition in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Get more information about the public events.
Will Steger is best known for his legendary polar explorations. He has traveled tens of thousands of miles by kayak and dogsled for more than 45 years, leading teams on some of the most significant polar expeditions in history. National Geographic Adventure magazine gave Steger a LIfetime Achievement Award in 2007. Through the Will Steger Foundation, Steger devotes himself to inspiring, educating, and empowering people around the world to take action on climate change solutions.
Photos of sled dogs (top) and three team members pausing for lunch by Will Steger, of Steger with sled dog and the expedition team with flags by Per Breiehagen