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.
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.
Big feat, few results
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."