Lewis Pugh Swims Under Antarctic Ice Sheet for Climate Change

Endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh is up to his old tricks. In the past, the endurance swimmer has taken dips in pretty much every ocean and sea on the planet, while also swimming the length of the English Channel (rather than the width) and taking a dip in the waters of a Himalayan glacier. But recently he pulled off what might be his biggest (and coldest!) swim yet, after traveling to the Antarctica and taking a plunge under an ice sheet.

In late January, Pugh traveled to the frozen continent to make his historic swim, which he undertook to help raise awareness of climate change. In his trademark style, the 50-year old environmentalist took to the water in just a speedo, swim cap, and goggles, in what he calls his most beautiful swim yet.

That involved diving into the icy subglacial lakes—a first for any human—and swimming under the melting ice sheets. There, he found caves and pillars that are being formed as the ice retreats, another indication of the impact of our warming planet.

Just yesterday, I shared a story about how warm waters under the Thwaite Glacier in Western Antarctica were causing that ice sheet to melt off at an accelerating rate. Pugh went for his swim in East Antarctica however, and found that it is experiencing its own loss of ice due to warming water temperatures.

As that ice melts, it is forming large lakes on the surface, with scientists now estimating that more than 65,000 of them can be found in the Antarctic. Those lakes didn’t exist a few decades ago, but now they are plentiful and growing. What makes them so concerning however, is that the water can drain into cracks in the glaciers, accelerating their retreat and hastening the melt off.

Pugh told CNN that his swim was “terrifying for a number of reasons.”  He went on to explain, “First, the water is so cold for a swimmer. It was 0 degrees centigrade, just above freezing. But also, it illustrates very very graphically what is happening in East Antarctica.”

These kinds of endeavors aren’t new for Pugh, who has been making high-profile and often cold swims for years in a wide variety of places around the globe. He’s even been to the Antarctic before. But this swim in one of these glacial lakes is entirely new and is cause for alarm on his part.

In his travels, the swimmer has seen the impact of climate change first hand, and has sine made it his mission to help spread the word about our changing planet. He’s even gone so far as to lobby the Kremlin to create a marine preserve in East Antarctica to help protect the region from overfishing.

According to international law, the 25 signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty have to agree on such a proposal in order for it to be enacted. So far, only Russia and China haven’t pledged their agreement. Pugh is hoping to change that.

While this story is likely send shivers up your spine with the mere thought of going for a swim in Antarctica. But as climate change continues to be an issue, perhaps some of those shivers are for different reasons.

Kraig Becker