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Lewis Pugh Puts His Life on the Line to Complete the First Multi-Day Polar Swim

Photo by Kelvin Trautman

On Tuesday 7th September, Lewis Pugh completed a historical climate swim across the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland. In doing so, he became the first person to complete a multi-day polar swim covering a distance of 7.8km in the freezing Arctic waters – something that has never been done before. The purpose of the life-threatening swim was to send a clear signal to world leaders ahead of the pivotal COP26 climate summit, that the time to address the climate emergency is now.

Pugh chose the Ilulissat Icefjord, because it’s home to the fastest moving glacier in Greenland and stands as a physical reminder of the rapid warming being experienced in the Arctic. The Greenland ice sheet also has the potential to inundate coastal cities around the world as it melts. It’s estimated that if the whole ice sheet was to melt, it would raise global sea levels by around seven meters.  

The Ilulissat Glacier is estimated to move at around 30m per day. As such, completing the swim proved to be a real challenge for Pugh, as the mouth of the Icefjord was often full of icebergs and brash ice (this is sharp and jagged and can do a lot of damage to cold swimmers). Patience was therefore required to wait for clearer conditions, through which he could plan a safe swim route. This is why the swim lasted 12 days.

Over those days, Pugh intended to swim during slack tide (in-between high and low tides) when the water was in a fairly calm state and ice wasn’t being swept through the swim path. He swam a total of 14 sessions over the 12 days, with a morning and afternoon swim taking place on several days. These swims could last for around ten minutes, in waters that were often 0C and no warmer than 3C. After each swim, Pugh was bundled into warm layers of clothing and a sleeping bag to reheat, as this was deemed one of the safest ways to protect his body. Pugh dived into this topic in-depth on his blog.

Pugh paid tribute to the people who helped him complete the swim. There were six other people on the boat, in addition to 80 people behind the scenes.

All eyes now turn to the COP26 climate summit, scheduled for November. World leaders will gather in Glasgow in what is billed to be one of the last best chances to act and avoid breaching the target set out in the Paris agreement. This is something that has come under intense scrutiny following on from the IPCC’s scathing report, which suggested that we’d surpass the 1.5C target within 20 years. This is why Pugh put his body and his life on the line to draw attention to what is happening already, and to immerse leaders in the changes being experienced in the polar regions. Pugh intends to be present at the COP26 summit and will bring this message directly to them. Leaders must heed Pugh’s urgent warning for all of our sakes.

On a personal level, I’d like to thank Lewis for all that he continues to do to raise awareness of the climate crisis and the plethora of environmental challenges we face. As such, I’ve dedicated my upcoming children’s picture, Nanook and the Melting Arctic, to Pugh. It was Lewis who showed me that nothing is impossible, who also introduced me to ‘nanuq’ – the Inuit name for a polar bear, and who has inspired me throughout the years with his tireless environmental campaigning.

It’s time for us to all join together to amplify the call for action at COP26, because when humanity unites to address a problem, anything becomes achievable.

My new children’s picture book in the ‘Time to Care’ series, Nanook and the Melting Arctic, is due for release on Monday 20th September. Nanook is a caring polar bear who lives in the Arctic. But when his igloo starts melting, Nanook must find a way to save his friends and his home. He knows that the people who can help are also those who’ve caused the problem and he must find a way to convince leaders to act on the climate crisis. Pre-order here.

Published inConservationThe Climate Crisis