28 Jan 2020 Story Climate change

Swimming on the edge: endurance swimmer takes on melting glaciers

Photo by UNEP

What does it take to get the world’s attention on climate change? Lewis Pugh thinks swimming across a supra-glacial lake in East Antarctica might. The pioneer swimmer—and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Patron of the Oceans—embarked on a gutsy 1-kilometre swim across a river, which has formed as a result of melting ice caused by climate change.

He hopes that the act will call attention to what some see as the need to approve a marine protected area in East Antarctica.

Marine protected areas offer one of the best options to maintain our oceans’ health and avoid further degradation. These “nature-based solutions” can be particularly effective when developed as part of a wider management solution.

“For eight long years the world has been trying to create a protected area in East Antarctica,” said Pugh, adding that a marine protected area “will protect this last wilderness from the industrial overfishing that has devastated all the oceans of the world, and crucially make this region more resilient to the climate crisis.”

East Antarctica is the coldest place on earth. Yet looking around, Pugh saw water cascading everywhere, carving deep ravines into the ice sheet or pooling into supra-glacial lakes.

As if to highlight the sense of urgency, a chunk of ice cracked during his swim making a loud “boom” in the tunnel Pugh was passing.

“I peered up into the darkness and thought, ‘Oh no, not now!’,” he said.

The swimmer was accompanied by Russian ice hockey legend and United Nations Patron of the Polar Regions, Slava Fetisov, and José María Figueres, former president of Costa Rica, and chairman of Antarctica 2020—an initiative to save more than 7 million km2 of the Southern Ocean.

This year will see a renewed focus on ocean action with the United Nations Ocean Conference held in June 2020 aiming to bring about strong commitments towards protecting the oceans and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14—Life below water.

The United Nations Environment Programme works with prominent personalities, such as Pugh and Fetisov, to help generate public awareness, interest and understanding on the most pressing environmental issues facing our planet.

Pugh is the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world and to date, he has pioneered more swims around famous landmarks than any other person in history.