An icy plunge to save the melting Arctic
An endurance swimmer uses momentum from a world record to draw attention to disappearing polar caps.
(Page 2 of 2)
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While his feat briefly made world headlines, Pugh laments that it hasn't had the impact he had hoped. He thought that by showing that someone could swim at the heart of the Arctic, the most northern place on Earth, world leaders would have been shaken into taking action against global warming.
Looking back, he says, "I think that I was slightly naive. I thought that if I showed people the beauty of the Arctic and the beauty of the polar bears that they would care so much that they would stand up and try to make a change."
Since then, Pugh has been traveling the world, speaking about the need to combat climate change and especially to preserve the Arctic. "It was so utterly disappointing that I came back from the North Pole, and a month later, Russia put a flag on the bottom of the sea there," he says. The flag was a symbol of the claim Russia is making on the seabed from its borders to the Pole. Other countries, including Norway, Canada, and Denmark (on behalf of Greenland), are making Arctic claims as well.
"What it has set off ... is this sort of race for ownership of the Arctic," Pugh says. With the price of oil rising above $100 a barrel, and sea ice diminishing, mining the Arctic seabed for oil, gas, and other minerals soon may become economically feasible.
A call to keep the Arctic 'untouched'
"We need to draw a line in the snow," says Pugh, who has left his work as a maritime lawyer at a law firm in London to dedicate his life to saving the Arctic. "We need an Arctic treaty ... it needs to be an untouched zone," he says. "Now is not the time for chatting. Now is the time for action, for cooperation, and to put aside national interests."
Pugh was born in Britain, spent time as a teenager in South Africa (his first big swim was the seven miles from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, to Cape Town), then returned home. On a bicycling trip in Norway, he fell in love with the beauty of the Arctic wilderness. "It's a magical place," he says. "Desolation, utter beauty. It's hard to describe. You have to be there."
Along with numerous speaking engagements (he's already served as a "warm-up act" for Al Gore), he's planning a new Arctic endeavor for later this year. Though he's kept the details secret, "The next expedition will take it to an entirely different level. It won't be a swim on a single day. It will be a journey" – a six-month expedition somewhere at the top of the world.
Pugh expects to spend much of the rest of 2008 in the United States, trying to raise interest in his cause. "America is just so powerful a country," he says. "It's amazing to see [what happens] when America gets behind something; it's so exciting."
His message is not one of despair, but a call for action. "There is hope. There's still time, but we're in the 11th hour," he says. "And we don't want to get to the 12th hour."
Though Americans will have many issues on their minds during this year's presidential campaign, from Iraq to the mortgage crisis, Pugh hopes that battling climate change will emerge near the top. "I can't think of anything more important than the environment we leave to our children and our children's children."