The Climate Swim: No Ice, No Life

How do you negotiate with an iceberg? You go around it.

I’m about to swim where I shouldn’t be able to, for the second time in my life. All because of ice – or the lack of it.

Thirteen years ago I swam across the North Pole. That swim shouldn’t have been possible; the Pole should have been frozen over. But the evidence of a warming planet was there in the ink-black water, and I needed everyone to know about it.

This month I’ll be swimming across the Ilulissat Icefjord, which is fed by the world’s fastest moving glacier. Ilulissat calves massive icebergs (including, legend has it, the one that sank the Titanic) and helps scientists understand how quickly glaciers are retreating due to climate change.

Ilulissat Glacier

The Ilulissat Glacier, on the west coast of Greenland, drains around 30 cubic kilometres of ice per year into the sea. Some of the icebergs that break from the glacier are over one kilometre tall.

Now, due to warming air and ocean temperatures, the glacier is melting at an accelerating scale and pace – an average of 30 m per day, and even faster in summer.

If the entire Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt, it would lead to a global sea level rise of over 7 metres. To put that in perspective, just a one-metre rise would drown major cities like London, Tokyo and New York.

“This is ground zero. This is why I will be swimming here.”

I believe there is no better place in the world than Ilulissat to show the dramatic impact of the Climate Crisis.

This will be the longest, coldest swim of my life.

World’s first multi-day polar swim

It took me 20 minutes to swim one km across the North Pole. Each minute felt like a lifetime.

This crossing will probably take me two weeks. It will be exponentially more challenging than anything I have ever done.

My route will not be a straight line, since I’ll have to navigate around icebergs and brash ice.

No one has tested the cumulative effects of swimming, day after day, in water that can drop to minus 1.7°C – and that’s before you take the wind chill factor into account.

I don’t know how my body will cope. No one has ever attempted a multi-day swim in the Polar Regions. Each day I will swim for one kilometre, then reheat, recover and start over again the next day.

Mission Critical

So why am I doing this?

“The Climate Crisis will affect every person and every creature, great or small, living on this Earth. It is the defining issue of our generation.”

In less than 100 days, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), where decisions will be made that determine our collective future.

I’ll be sending them my message from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

I will tell them that this is our last chance to honour the commitments they made in Paris, and move beyond them. I will urge them to deliver tangible action, today.

I will remind them that we rely on ice for our survival. It keeps our planet’s temperature in a range within which we can live.  No ice, no life.

Around 800 million people depend on meltwater from hundreds of thousands of mountain glaciers that are rapidly shrinking around the world.

Now, as our planet heats up, sea levels are rising and lives are on the line.

No ice, no life

Locked up inside ice is the power to calve icebergs, to raise seas, to feed people or drown them. It holds world temperatures in perfect balance.

Water is my element. But when it gets close to freezing point – which in the case of sea water, is minus 1.7°C — it becomes solid and unforgiveable. It’s not somewhere you want to be in a pair of swimming trunks. On more than one occasion, ice has nearly cost me my life.

The irony is that I freeze in order to show how the world is heating up.

People assume that you get used to the cold. You never do. What’s more, the cumulative effect of freezing water on the human body is brutal. I’ve swum until I couldn’t feel my fingers and feet. I’ve swum until my tongue froze inside my mouth. I’ve swum until I could feel my body shutting down.

I don’t know how much longer I will be able to do this.

This swim has to be my last stand. The stakes have never been higher.

Stronger together

Every expedition has a dedicated team working behind the scenes to make it happen. I want to thank mine for their passion, their commitment and their untiring work through Covid.

I would also like to thank our lead sponsors Legal and General Investment Management (LGIM) for making this swim possible. LGIM is a leading responsible investor, regularly lauded for its action in tackling climate change, among other sustainability issues. The bottom line is, we are not going to be able to solve the Climate Crisis unless we change the way we invest.

The last 100 days

Over 35 years of swimming I’ve witnessed our oceans and Polar Regions change. Many times I have felt like a lone voice crying out for the wilderness. But I am not alone. I am joined by hundreds of thousands of voices around the world – from scientists and diplomats to journalists and activists. They know that these next 100 days are the most important in human history.

Let’s make them count.

Find out more about the Greenland Swim 2021 here.

Lewis Pugh is an endurance swimmer and the UN Patron of the Oceans. He was the first person to swim the 528km length of the English Channel.