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British-South African endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh became the first person to complete a multi-day swim in the Polar Regions on 6 September 2021.
Pugh, the United Nations' Patron of the Oceans, completed his 7.8 kilometre (4.8 mile) journey across Greenland's Ilulissat Icefjord over 14 sessions over 12 days.
The effects of such a swim in freezing water have never been measured before, so each day his body temperature was monitored live because of the risk of hypothermia.
"This was an extremely challenging swim," he said of his pioneering effort. "Not only because of the cold, and not just because I had to swim in freezing water day after day, without a chance to let my body recover. But because the conditions were also very treacherous." Pugh's attempt was hampered by icebergs and brash ice, which clogged the mouth of the Icefjord. "Everything became harsher," he explained.
"The water was colder, air temperatures plummeted, and I had to deal with the sharp edges of brash ice." The endurance athlete, who in 2007 became the first person to swim across the Geographic North Pole, completed his latest feat in order to highlight the rapid melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet as a result of the climate crisis. "The reason why I did this swim is clear: we rely on ice for our survival. Ice keeps our planet cool enough for us to live," he added. "But we are losing it fast. No ice, no life." Speaking after he completed his swim, he warned: "I am deeply alarmed by what I have seen. Last month was the first time in recorded history that it rained at the highest point on the Greenland ice sheet.
"The melt is accelerating. I watched water gushing off the ice sheet at a location that, only a few years ago, was covered in hundreds of meters of ice. I also witnessed shocking quantities of ice being pushed through my swim route and far out to sea."
The Ilulissat Glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, moves at an average of 40 metres per day in summer and produces 10 per cent of all Greenland's icebergs, some over 1 kilometre tall and including, legend has it, the one that sank the Titanic.
If the entire Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt, it would lead to a global sea level rise of over seven metres. In his role as UN Patron of the Oceans, Pugh is calling for 30 per cent of the world's oceans to be protected by 2030 at the UN Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this November.
There, he will stress to world leaders the role healthy oceans play in mitigating climate change. He will urge them to move beyond long-term commitments and towards immediate action. Pugh will travel to London for discussions with key leaders before attending COP26 in Glasgow in November.