Norwegian explorer gives lecture about experiences, climate change

By: Megan Kadlec

Countless Minnesota State University, Mankato students put off studying for their midterms in order to join with staff, faculty and community members Tuesday afternoon to attend a lecture given by polar explorer and environmental witness Thorleif Thorleifsson.

Despite the rain and sleet, Ostrander Auditorium was packed for his address, “A Voyage Around the North Pole: Modern Exploration and Climate Change.”  In attendance at the lecture were representatives of the Norwegian government, members of Minnesota’s rich Norwegian community and Scandinavian Studies students.

One stop on a United States tour sponsored by the Norwegian government, Thorleifsson discussed his 80-day journey around the North Pole, following in the footsteps of legendary polar explorers Roald Amundsen and Fritjof Nansen.

Thorleifsson began his U.S. tour in Washington D.C. and stopped in Minnesota for one lecture at MSU. According to the Norwegian government, they chose MSU over other universities and venues in the state after considering the reputation of MSU’s Scandinavian Studies program.

While the title polar explorer is rather self-explanatory, many individuals might find themselves asking what an environmental witness is.

“Witnessing is a act to validate a lived experience. It is the process by which voices that have not been heard, or voices that cannot speak, are recognized,” said Scandinavian Studies professor Suzanne Martin. “Witnessing helps those who weren’t there or can’t be there, to understand the importance of what has been witnessed.”

Suzanne was one of three individuals who provided welcomes to Thorleifsson before his lecture. Also scheduled to speak was environmental counselor Marit Archer Saether from the Norwegian Embassy, though for some reason, her introduction was forgotten.

What took Amundsen six years to accomplish, Thorleifsson completed in just four months. This was previously impossible as ice caps and glaciers were frozen at different times of the year, making it impossible to make the entire journey around the North Pole in one stretch.

Thorleifsson and his crew departed from Oslo in June 2010, sailed along the Norwegian coast through the Northeast Passage, across the Bering Straight passing Alaska’s northern coast, through the Northwest Passage and sailed past Greenland and Iceland before returning to Oslo in October.

“When you also take into consideration that some of these places once were almost impossible to penetrate, I think that says a lot,” Thorleifsson said. “And as an environmentalist I think that is very scary.”

However strong Thorleifsson’s beliefs are about climate change, he still admitted that it was an opinion and he isn’t trying to influence anyone’s beliefs.

“There is no question to me. This is happening, but is it created by humans?” said Thorleifsson. “It’s up to you to decide, but this is my belief.”

While the 10,000-mile journey was difficult, some of the biggest problems came before Thorleifsson and his crew were able to depart from Oslo. For example, Thorleifsson was forced to deal with the Russian bureaucracy in order to gain the permission necessary to sail through the Northeast Passage on Russia’s border.

The Russian government required Thorleifsson to gain 41 signatures before he was able to depart, as well as requiring daily phone calls to the government throughout the trip.

While dealing with the Russian government was difficult, Thorleifsson said the biggest challenge he faced was choosing the proper sailboat. While their boat needed to able to conquer ice, it also needed to be fast, as the explorers were on a strict deadline. Because the boat was designed to be fast and efficient, the three explorers were forced to determine what they really needed on their journey, as they were only able to pack just less than 1700 pounds of cargo, their body weight included.

Included as necessities were a computer, video equipment, weather software as well as plenty of wool clothes and food that made for quick meals. Thorleifsson said his crew ate a lot of reindeer hearts on the trip because they were easy to eat.

As Thorleifsson and his crew reached the end of their journey, they were shocked by civilization. After being on a sailboat in close proximity to one another and nature for 80 days, it is no wonder the explorers were taken aback by the vision of a city.

“Finally, we sail into a completely different world and it is a cross between the melting artic and this polis in the North Sea. There are a lot of helicopters, flyboats, a lot of activity. It is like sailing into a city,” Thorleifsson said. “We have this experience of being in the wilderness for three months and suddenly you are in the middle of a city.”

Thorleifsson credits his success to preparedness, improvisation, established rules, analysis, concentrated behavior and innovation. However important these aspects of the trip were, he said the team was able to accomplish their goals because they were more than crewmates, they were friends.

Attendees of Thorleifsson’s lecture were not only informed about the perils of polar exploration, but were also entertained. Audience members were constantly laughing at Thorleifsson’s witty remarks and odd comments.

“Captain Thorleifsson is not only an important witness to these changes; he is also an outstanding example of the great Norwegian history of explorers in this area of the world,” said Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Christian Strommen.

Co-sponsors of the event include the Norwegian Embassy; University Advancement; the Colleges of Arts and Humanities, Science, Engineering and Technology, and Social and Behavioral Sciences; the Scandinavian Studies program, and countless other MSU departments.

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