Video of the Week: A Daring Swim Across a Glacial Lake to Protest Climate Change

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
Renowned endurance swimmer and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)s Patron of the Oceans, Lewis Pugh, celebrates swimming 100km, near Eddystone Lighthouse, United Kingdom during The Long Swim campaign on 22 July 2018. Credit: Kelvin Trautman/Flickr

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.”

Lewis Pugh swims at Peter I Island, Antarctica as part of his 5 Swims expedition on 5th March, 2015. Credit: Kelvin Trautman/Flickr

“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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Photo Friday: Lewis Pugh’s East Antarctic Supraglacial Swim

Lewis Pugh is a British-South African endurance swimmer and environmental diplomat. Pugh has regularly embarked on distance swims since 2006––including the North Pole, the English Channel, and a glacial lake on Mount Everest––to call attention to vulnerable ecosystems. His Wikipedia page describes him as the “Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming.”

Last week Pugh swam one kilometer of a supraglacial lake in East Antarctica near the Russian research station Novolazarevskaya. He did so while wearing his usual distance cold swim attire––a Speedo, swimcap, and goggles––in water that was just above 0°C (32°F). The swim took Pugh just over ten minutes to complete.

“The swim was the accumulation of 33 years of training in order to swim 10 minutes and 17 seconds down that river,” Pugh told the BBC. “I swam here today as we are in a climate emergency. We need immediate action from all nations to protect our planet.”

Pugh, a maritime lawyer by trade, became designated United Nations Patron of the Oceans in 2013. At the time it was just the second Patron for a specific cause recognized by the UN Enivronmental Programme. Pugh’s goal: to establish a Marine Protected Areas in the Southern Ocean––a highly sensitive and vital organ to Earth’s ocean and climate health.

The Pugh Foundation website cites a study by Professor Chris Stokes of Durham University, which found over 65,000 supraglacial lakes exist on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet alone, “indicating that surface melting is more widespread than previously thought and occurring much further inland and at much higher elevations than previously observed.”

“This will be the hardest swim of Lewis’s life,” his website reads. “Not only will there be freezing water, and a severe wind chill factor, but there is also the threat of the lake suddenly emptying out through a crack in the ice sheet.” A short video “A Swim In the Ice – #Antarctica2020” highlights Pugh’s mission and pioneering endeavor.

Radical Tactical Shift: Swimming in Unfrozen Places

In the Arctic, global climate change is a story of disappearing ice. Midwinter sea ice has decreased by two million square kilometers since satellite records began 40 years ago, and glaciers in the Arctic have been melting at unparalleled speeds, profoundly impacting Arctic species and ecosystems. When it comes to activism about this troubling issue, endurance swimmer and U.N. Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh is literally all in.

Recently, Pugh swam along the sea ice off the Norwegian island of Svalbard, in water that the Monaco Glacier had occupied only a few years prior. Swimming a kilometer along the sea ice took him 22 minutes, longer than expected. He couldn’t remember ever having been so cold, he said in a statement. He was so chilled that his hands stopped functioning, and he had to bite his photographer’s drysuit sleeve so his crew could lift him into the support boat.

A source, who asked to remain anonymous as swimming was forbidden by the research station he worked for, swam in Antarctica’s Ross Sea and was impressed by Pugh’s accomplishment. “Being in such cold water even for just a second, it’s scary. Your body goes into shock— it was at one temperature, and now it isn’t suddenly. But when that’s over, it’s very rewarding and satisfying,” he told GlacierHub.

Witnessing changes to the oceans over his lifetime inspired Pugh to channel his talent for cold-water swimming into raising awareness about climate change. “I undertake swims in the most vulnerable parts of our oceans to campaign for the creation of marine protected areas,” Pugh said. He has finished a series of swims in his native South African waters, is the first person to complete long-distance swims in the ancient Seven Seas, and has accomplished distance swimming campaigns in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Raised on his father’s stories of famous polar explorers, Pugh yearned to visit the Arctic since he was a child, he told a TED audience in September 2009. He is deeply troubled by the rapid change he has observed since his first trip. “I’ve seen polar bears walking across very thin ice in search of food. I have swum in front of glaciers which have retreated so much, and… every year, seen less and less sea ice,” he said. “I wanted the world to know what was happening up there.”

In 2007, in order to shake lapels and stir up conversation about climate change, Pugh planned the world’s first distance swim at the geographic North Pole, swimming one kilometer in negative 1.7 Celsius water. Along with his support team, he caught a ride north on a Russian icebreaker and personally witnessed the vast loss of Arctic sea ice when they encountered patches of open sea at the pole. During the 18 minute and 50 second swim, his hands were so damaged by the cold water that he couldn’t feel them for four months after. He said the conversation generated about climate change made the pain worthwhile.

“Anyone who tells you they enjoy swimming in freezing water is either mad, or has never done it,” said Pugh. “I certainly don’t enjoy it. I am doing it to carry a message about the health of our oceans. We are in a very, very dangerous situation, and the world needs to know about it, and take immediate action.”

Pugh encourages everyone to consider the world they want their children and grandchildren to live in, and commit to a “radical tactical shift” that will make a positive difference to the future. “Very few things are impossible to achieve if we really put our whole minds to it,” he promises. The personal pain and struggle he endures for his dramatic accomplishments lend credence to this optimism; mitigation, perhaps, can be accomplished like a sub-zero distance swim, stroke by determined stroke.