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Steger heads north again
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Will Steger standing on his porch at his place north of Ely. He is preparing to traverse northern Canada to examine the impact of global warming. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
Polar explorer Will Steger is preparing a quest across northern Canada -- a six-month dog sled adventure that will bring the Arctic into thousands of classrooms. Steger hasn't led a sled dog journey in five years, but says he came out of retirement because of his concerns about global warming.

Ely, Minn. — The trip begins Dec. 15 in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories - in the heart of a northern Canadian winter. Temperatures hover around 40 below zero. There's more night than day. Six adventurers, three sleds, and 30 dogs on a 3,000 mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean.

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Image Sled preparation

Will Steger is 59 years old now. With a trim build and long dark hair, he still looks the young adventurer photographed with a faithful dog on the White House steps. But the lines around his eyes reveal long exposure to cold polar winds and blinding snow.

Steger is best known for daring sled dog crossings of Antarctica and Greenland, and an unsupported trip to the North Pole. Five years ago, Steger thought he'd retired. Now he's back, to make a point.

"We're hoping to be able to put a little bit of a face on global climate change on a culture that's really being affected by it," Steger says.

In December he returns to familiar territory and old friends. Transect 2004 will skim along a series of Inuit villages in Nunavut, Canada's newest and northernmost province. Steger says the Inuit are experiencing global climate change first hand.

"The weather conditions are changing, so they can't travel in the spring and fall like they used to," Steger says. "There's a lot more intensity of solar radiation. For the first time the Inuits are burning their skin in the sun."

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Image Steger plans ahead

Steger says caribou migrations have changed. There's less sea ice, where seals can be found.

"Climate change is most obvious in the Arctic regions, because there we're starting to lose the reflecting layers of snow," Steger says. "And, rather than reflecting oncoming radiation, it's absorbing it. So the changes there are three or four times faster than, say, here in Minnesota."

The adventure is the hook. Climate is a key lesson. And the audience can be found in classrooms around the world. Organizers say they expect three million students to follow along. A Web-based curriculum will lead kids through social studies, math or science.

Steger's dog yard is a clearing in the pine forest north of Ely. The huskies strain their chains for an ear scratch or a friendly pat. These are large dogs. They're thickly- furred and long-legged, bred to pull a heavy sled.

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Image A Steger dog

Paul Pregont and his wife are team members. Both are experienced Arctic adventurers and educators.

"I would hope that the students would have a better understanding of how we're all connected -- in that how, if you live in Texas, pollution that you would help create would end up in the Arctic," Pregont says. "And also get a better understanding of an area that they may never ever see, and how what we do down here affects things up there."

There will be research. The team will measure snow depths. They need to verify what satellites are reading - a process called ground truthing. It hasn't been done yet in this land that sees few visitors.

But even that won't settle a debate on the severity of global warming. John Christy, a climate researcher with the University of Alabama-Huntsville, says the climate is warming, but not very quickly. He says today's Arctic climate is similar to that in the mid-1800s.

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Image Paul Pregont

"I think when you look at the observations you will see that the catastrophic forecasts are just not coming to pass," Christy says. "We are talking about hundredths and tenths of a degree per decade. We're not talking about half a degree or whole degrees per decade."

Will Steger concedes his trip will provide few definitive answers. But Steger thinks the evidence is mounting.

"I really believe that this climate change is real," Steger says. "I mean, I've studied weather all my life. We are changing the climate, and we are going to have some real challenges ahead of us if we don't educate ourselves about what is happening."

Steger's party leaves Yellowknife Dec. 15. They get some miles behind them before joining up with school kids. The on line classroom begins Jan. 11, 2004. The journey will take them until late June.

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