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Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life

From The Field
Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life

An urgent message from a warming Arctic
Written by Alex Roddie // Photography by Olle Nordell

‘We’ve now been negotiating to tackle the climate crisis and to stem global warming for 27 years. This has got to be the year when there’s action.’

Climate change is something that the adventure community cannot ignore. We see evidence of it everywhere, from retreating glaciers in the mountains we climb and ski to changes in the weather and smoke-choked horizons closer to home. But how can we bring the lessons of what we’re seeing to a wider audience? How can that result in meaningful change?

Lewis Pugh, a British-South African endurance swimmer and ocean advocate, has seen more direct evidence than most of just how rapidly things are changing, and for many years he has tried to turn his experiences into action. Back in 2007, as a student, I remember reading about his long-distance swim across the North Pole in waters of -1.7°C. At the time he urged world leaders to do everything they could to protect the environment. A lot has changed since 2007, yet in some respects little has changed – perilously little.

I had been following Lewis’s Climate Swim project this year and was curious to speak with him. The scale of the swim is daunting: a 7.8km swim across the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord, a stretch of water filled with icebergs from the glacier that feeds it. The project took 12 days to complete and was the first multi-day polar swim to have been completed. His mission was simple: to take what he had witnessed to the world’s leaders at COP26 in Glasgow this November and demand that they protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030.

Lewis smiled and waved at me when the Zoom call connected. He looked driven, focused, and when I asked him about his motivations behind the Climate Swim project his eyes lit up. ‘Why do you think it’s so important to protect the world’s oceans?’ I asked him, and without pause he thanked me for asking that, and said, ‘Do you know, you’re the first person who has asked me about the environmental side first! Most people are just interested in the swimming.’ He didn’t hold back. ‘Three things have come together to create this perfect storm for the oceans: climate change, serious overfishing, and plastic pollution. The stakes cannot be higher,’ he stressed, ‘but we are getting there with our 30 by 30 campaign. Nearly half the world’s nations have signed up to it now, so that’s a big area of the world’s oceans that will be protected.’

Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life

COP26, the climate change summit taking place in Glasgow only a few weeks after we spoke, was never far from his mind. This is not Lewis’s first rodeo – far from it. ‘You know,’ he said, his voice gentle but with an undercurrent of frustration, ‘whenever I hear a world leader setting targets for 2050 or 2060 I cringe inside, because they won’t be around to deliver on that. Look, this is the 27th year of negotiations. We’ve now been negotiating to tackle the climate crisis and to stem global warming for 27 years. This has got to be the year when there’s action. Commitment, yes, but it’s got to be followed up by action, and right now.’

He told me that when he first swam in the Arctic, north of Spitzbergen, right on the edge of the ice pack, the water was 3°C. When he went back 12 years later the water was 10°C. It’s that rapid change he wants to communicate with world leaders, bridging the gulf between data and reality with personal experience. ‘I’ll be giving a number of addresses at COP26,’ he said, ‘and I’ll be explaining what I’m seeing in the Arctic and Antarctic.’

Next he began to paint a picture of the location he’d chosen for the Climate Swim, at the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland. ‘Imagine a 60km-long fjord, and at the top of this fjord is the Ilulissat Glacier – the fastest-moving glacier in the world, moving at around 40m per day.’ He laughed. ‘That’s moving faster than the world’s leaders! When the glacier calves, icebergs break off into the sea. They often clog up the mouth of the fjord – some of these icebergs are 1km high. Big icebergs grounded there, and behind them thousands and thousands more.’ He paused for a moment and looked at me, as if making sure I was imagining the scene. ‘At four o’clock one morning I saw one of these big icebergs coming off the glacier. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. One of them moved, and suddenly you’ve got 60km of icebergs surging through this gap straight out to sea. As far as we could see there was no water, just ice everywhere: rubble, icebergs, brash ice, sea ice. It was a potent reminder that you can’t negotiate with the climate.’

Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life

I began to understand why he’d picked this specific location to help him deliver his message. It was a dynamic, often violent place – and, like everywhere else in the Arctic, it was at the front line of rising temperatures. ‘I’ve got to do my swims in the most vulnerable places,’ he said with that same sense of passionate urgency. ‘I want to shine a light on what’s happening in these far-away places where the public aren’t going. Legend has it that this glacier calved the iceberg that sank the Titanic. We all know what the owners of the Titanic said, that it was unsinkable. Most of the people on the ship were asleep when she hit the iceberg, and there’s a metaphor there, a parallel with today – we have to turn the ship around, to use another maritime analogy! We can’t be asleep now.’

What of the swim itself? ‘It was the first multi-day swim in a polar region. Traditionally I had swum a kilometre. I’d go to the North Pole and swim a kilometre, and that would take me between 18 and 20 minutes to complete. But the distance across this fjord is 7.8km, and you can’t swim 7.8km all at once in water that’s going to be between zero and three degrees. So I had to do it in sessions.’ He paused for a moment. ‘I always say that when you’ve been really, really cold you never warm up. You remember it deep in your bones. I remember the panic swimming across the North Pole, remember what my hands felt like in South Georgia. No amount of thinking positively can get you through that. You have to slowly do more and more swims, slowly taking the temperature down, spending months acclimatising.’

He explained that the final acclimatisation swim took place in Iceland, in water that went down to 3°C, but he stressed that the difference between 3°C and 0°C is a lot – ‘It’s like the difference between climbing Snowdon and Everest! Every degree you go down ratchets up the pain and the danger.’ He looked at me again, pausing for a long time as if to make sure I understood the subtext of what he was saying, the implicit metaphors. ‘When you’re swimming in water around zero, you’re passing tipping points. It’s survival.’

Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life Lewis Pugh: no ice, no life

Something that I found particularly interesting was his concept of inter-species justice and inter-generational justice. Lewis Pugh comes from a legal background; for him, justice is essential. ‘When you see an injustice it burns inside you,’ as he put it. ’I grew up in a country where there were gross human-rights violations, and I studied law in South Africa at the end of apartheid when one of my lecturers was helping to write the new constitution. I’ve always seen the climate crisis as an issue of justice. Throughout the world, we are pushing other species to extinction, and there is something very, very wrong about that. We need to take a step back and realise that every species on this planet is essential, and they have every right to be here! We lose something deep down inside ourselves when we allow species to go extinct.

‘The second issue is inter-generational justice. When we keep consuming all the Earth’s resources, when we pollute the environment and hoover all the fish out of the sea, we leave our children with a world that is not sustainable. Why would we do this to our own children? We need to become responsible ancestors.’

I found myself nodding but he was quick to add that we had to be careful not to assume that climate change’s impacts would all be in the future. Impact, he said, was being felt right now. ‘Go speak to the people of Germany and Belgium, who have experienced horrific floods; of Greece and California, going through wildfires over and over again. And there is also international justice to consider. Richer countries are using up more than their share of resources, and poorer countries are suffering. There’s currently a famine in Madagascar being caused by the climate crisis.’ He gestured helplessly with his hands and was, briefly, speechless with the futility of it. ‘The people of Madagascar have done very little to cause this, but they’re among the first to be affected by the climate crisis. There’s this quiet famine happening off the east coast of Africa. I was about to go for a swim one day, and I just started thinking: this matters.’

His final remarks hammered home the urgency of the situation, stressing that we have a small window left in which to act, and that once we passed these tipping points, no amount of political goodwill would solve it. ‘That is my message for COP26,’ Lewis said. ‘The action has to happen now.’

Read the print feature ‘Window of Opportunity’ in Sidetracked Volume 22
For more information, visit and follow Lewis on Instagram @lewis.pugh
Written by Alex Roddie // @alex_roddie
Photography by Olle Nordell // @ollenordell



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