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An icy plunge to save the melting Arctic

An endurance swimmer uses momentum from a world record to draw attention to disappearing polar caps.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 2008

Polar Man: Lewis Gordon Pugh set a world record for swimming 1 kilometer in Arctic waters last July. Mr. Pugh hoped his feat would draw world attention to the region's rapid climate change.

Jason Roberts/push pictures/keystone/ap


Last July, Lewis Gordon Pugh became the only person to ever take a long-distance swim at the North Pole. Wearing only a Speedo, cap, and goggles, he managed to paddle 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in saltwater that was a frigid -1.7 degrees C (29 degrees F.) – below the freezing point of freshwater. It was the coldest water in which a human had ever swum.

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The record-setting swim wasn't his first encounter with icy seawater. In 2005, he plunged into 0 degree C water at Petterman Island, Antarctica, to claim the right to the most southern swim in the world. He's also swum the longest fjord in Norway, the 127-mile Sognefjord; the English Channel; and in 2006, the famed Thames River in Britain – all 203 miles of it – stopping off at 10 Downing Street to chat with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But Mr. Pugh, who has earned the moniker "Polar Bear," doesn't want to be known as merely a thrill-seeking athlete. Today, his single-minded purpose is to bring attention to the plight of his favorite place on earth, the fast-melting Arctic Ocean.

Last summer saw the Arctic's sea ice shrink to just half the volume of only four years earlier. Scientists are quickly recalculating their estimates that Arctic summers might be ice-free by midcentury. Last month, one scientist estimated that it could happen as soon as 2012.

"We need to save the Arctic not because of the polar bears, and not because it is the most beautiful place in the world," Pugh explains in an interview, "but because our very survival depends upon it." The changes at the northernmost part of the world are dramatic illustrations of worldwide climate change, he says, "the canary in the [coal] mine."

Pugh has seen the changes firsthand as he's traveled to the Arctic in recent years. Last summer, he had no difficulty finding open water to take his polar swim – plenty of large gaps in the ice had opened in the area around the North Pole.

Together with a small team of helpers, Pugh traveled north aboard a Russian ship to the geographic North Pole. As he stood on the ice preparing for his historic swim, the inky water looked foreboding. "When I stood there on the ice, I didn't know if in 20 minutes time I would come out alive," he recalls. Pugh had never tried, even in practice, a swim in water so cold. "I had been training in water that was 2 degrees [C]. That doesn't sound like a big difference ... but it's the difference between night and day."

Using a mental technique he'd been taught, he was able to raise the core temperature of his body as a defense against the bitter cold. "It's visualizing exactly how the swim is going to work out," he explains. "It's squeezing out all the fear."

After shaking hands with his spotter, Jorgen Amundsen (a relative of famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen), Pugh leapt in. Following a route designated by flags planted along the ice, he made his 0.6 mile swim in a little more than 18 minutes, enough distance to qualify for an international record. (Others had briefly jumped into the polar water, but none had come close to traveling far enough to qualify as an official "swim.") Pugh suffered no long-term ill effects, though the fingers on one of his hands remained numb for several months afterward.