Last month, fifty-year-old Lewis Pugh swam one kilometer across a supraglacial lake while wearing nothing but a Speedo, a swim cap and goggles. Supraglacial lakes are pools of water that collect on the surface of glaciers as a result of ice melt. Pugh’s lake was located on top of Langhovde Glacier in East Antarctica, where the water was just above freezing and the air temperature was about minus 37 degrees Celsius (35 degrees Fahrenheit) with wind chill on the day of his feat. But this was no futile act.
Pugh studied law and politics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where he now serves as Adjunct Professor of International Law. He is an endurance swimmer and an advocate for the oceans. He has spent nearly twenty years jumping into freezing lakes and oceans to draw attention to some of the world’s most beautiful, but threatened, landscapes.
Pugh is most famous for completing the first swim across the North Pole in 2007 to call attention to melting sea ice in the Arctic. In 2010, he swam across a glacial lake on Mount Everest to highlight the melting of Himalayan glaciers and in 2018 he swam the entire length of the English Channel as a call to protect thirty percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. In 2013, the United Nations named him the first UN Patron of the Oceans.
On his website, Pugh wrote:
“I began swimming in vulnerable ecosystems to draw attention to the impact of our actions on our oceans. I saw enormous chunks of ice slide off Arctic glaciers. I swam over bleached coral killed by rising sea temperatures, and over the bones of whales hunted to the edge of extinction. I visited lakes high in the Himalayas where once there was only ice. I saw plastic pollution in the most remote parts of the oceans, and garbage piling up so thick on city beaches that you can no longer see the sand.”Lewis Pugh
Supraglacial lakes are a normal polar landscape feature, but while the lakes themselves do not necessarily indicate a warming climate, it is expected that more will form as a result of climate change. Indeed, an increasing number of lakes have been found in Greenland, and they have also been forming at higher altitudes.
Chris Stokes, a professor at Durham University in England, told NBC News that while scientists have known these supraglacial lakes are also present in East Antarctica, they were “surprised at quite how many had formed and all around the ice sheet margin.” His study found more than 65,000 of these lakes during the summer melt season in January, 2017. Scientists are beginning to take note of how the number of lakes changes from year to year to see if a climate change signal can be detected.
Pugh worked with the University of Durham’s glaciologists to map out last month’s swim across one of the supraglacial lakes in East Antarctica’s Dronning Maud Land region. Their hope was to illuminate the beauty and fragility of the landscape as a call to action for people to protect it. “I’m urging world leaders to be courageous to take the important hard decisions which they have to take in order to protect the environment,” Pugh told NBC news. He hopes nations will come together to support a marine protected area in East Antarctica. “Allowing this area to recover and restore itself, that’s the dream.”
“Why do I do what I do? I do it because I believe in protecting our fragile planet, in peace and in justice. I do it because it’s right. I do it because our souls need nature. And I do it as much for nature’s sake as for ours.”Lewis Pugh
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