Swimmer’s icy last stand
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It is “mission critical” with ice sheets melting, rising sea-levels and unprecedented climate changes having the potential to devastate billions of lives.
South Africa’s coastal areas ‒ already seeing heavier and more frequent storms ‒ will be heavily affected.
This urgent and chilling message comes this week from endurance swimmer and ocean activist, Lewis Pugh, who is swimming the world’s first multi-day polar swim, The Coldest Swim on Earth, across the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland.
Local environmentalists said this week that Pugh was risking his life swimming in hypothermic conditions, with fast flowing, razor sharp ice which could slice his body and wildlife such as polar bears. Boats do not launch in the fjord without careful weather checks.
He began his swim on August 25 and is scheduled to finish tomorrow.
Pugh, who grew up in South Africa but now lives in the UK, has described the hugely hazardous swim as his “last stand” in a desperate bid to get world governments to take action in the face of escalation of melting glaciers, posing extreme danger to the world population as climate change takes hold.
KwaZulu-Natal is exposed to the same climate threat, warned Saambr (South African Association for Marine Biological Research), as changes in the ocean would not only cause flooding in coastal areas, but were already directly connected to weather changes, such as severe storms and drought.
Pugh’s aim is to bring the issue to the attention of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow from November 1 to November 12. Pugh said the swim would be used to impress upon world leaders that urgent action was needed now and to move beyond long-term commitments.
Pugh said 13 years ago he swam across the North Pole which “should not have been possible because it should have been frozen over, but a warming planet was evident in the ink-black water”.
“Now I’m swimming across the Ilulissat Icefjord, which is fed by the world’s fastest moving glacier. Ilulissat calves massive icebergs ‒ including, legend has it, the one that sank the Titanic ‒ and helps scientists to understand how quickly glaciers are retreating due to climate change,” he said.
The Ilulissat Glacier, on the west coast of Greenland, drains about 30 cubic km of ice a year into the sea, with some of the icebergs breaking from the glacier being more than one kilometre tall.
“Now due to warming air and ocean temperatures, the glacier is melting at an accelerating scale and pace – an average of 30m a day and even faster in summer.
“If the entire Greenland ice sheet were to melt, it would lead to a global sea level rise of more than 7 metres – just a one metre rise would drown major cities like London, Tokyo and New York.
“This is Ground Zero, this is why I’m swimming here ‒ the longest and coldest swim of my life,” said Pugh.
The Lewis Pugh Foundation has estimated one billion people live less than 10 metres above sea level and about 230 million people within one metre.
As the world’s first multi-day polar swimmer, Pugh said that in his North Pole swim, it had taken him 20 minutes to cover one kilometre: “Each minute felt like a lifetime.”
In the run-up to this challenge, he said: “This crossing will exponentially be more challenging than anything I have ever done.
“My route will not be in a straight line, since I’ll have to navigate around icebergs and brash ice.
“No-one has tested the cumulative effects of swimming day after day in water that can drop to minus 1.7 deg C and that’s before you take the wind chill factor into account.
“I don’t know how my body will cope. No-one has ever attempted a multi-day swim in the polar regions,” he said, adding that the cumulative effect of freezing water was “brutal”, including his tongue freezing in his mouth.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this. This swim has to be my last stand. The stakes have never been higher,” said Pugh.
An email to IOS from Pugh’s support team on Thursday said: “The swim has been very tough. It’s not just the extreme cold – ambient temperatures are zero or below – there has been an ’ice event’ across the icefjord. This has covered the mouth of the fjord in floating ice which has made swimming very treacherous.
“Large grounded icebergs have come apart, causing wave after wave of ice to rush through the mouth of the fjord and the harbour has been blocked, which has forced the team to move to the south side of the icefjord which is better suited to open swimmable water.”
The swim was halted for two days this week because of dangerous conditions. Pugh was hoping to swim for 20 minutes a day, or if possible, two 20-minute swims daily.
David Bush from the Lewis Pugh Foundation said despite Covid restrictions, Pugh has “been very diligent in fitness preparations and is in the best physical shape of his career”.
“We are highlighting the speed of changes occurring in the polar regions as a critical indicator of the climate crisis and calling for the absolute need for very urgent action,” said Bush.
Yesterday, Saambr director of education at uShaka Sea World, Jone Porter, said: “They don’t put boats out in that area without checking the weather, there’s a very fast current and icebergs all over which don’t move at a normal pace and can be erratic. He is risking his life.”
She said KZN would be impacted by rising sea levels, with climate changes including rain at the wrong time of year, which would affect agriculture, as well as migratory species, which would have yet another a ripple and upsetting effect on different ecosystems.
“There’s also a big current, the Ocean Conveyor Belt which goes from Greenland to Durban and which moves due to temperature and salinity. It is a deep water current and carries nutrients brought up from the deep. In the last ten years, there’s been a very distinct change in the flow of this current.
“Durban will be heavily affected by sea level rises and all the rocky shores along the KZN coastline will be impacted. We are already seeing storms which are bigger and more frequent,” said Porter, adding that while climate change is “out of sight, out of mind” for most of the public, it is growing exponentially.
“It is here and it’s accelerating. We will be closely following COP26,” said Porter.
Durban’s Sarah Ferguson, South African endurance swimmer and founder of Breathe Conservation, said Pugh was “putting his life on the line” with the Coldest Swim on Earth.
Ferguson, who plans to swim from Durban to Cape Town next year, said: “It’s a very high risk swim. It sounds simple to swim across a channel, but with this swim, there’s a danger of sharp ice which could slit his stomach, there’s wildlife such as polar bears and then there’s the extreme cold and the impact on your body recovering from a cold swim. A 20-minute swim in freezing water will take your body five hours to warm up again. That’s huge and the cold takes a lot of energy. Also, mentally, you have to get back into the water which is so painful.
“It’s incredibly tough physically and mentally and after previous swims, Lewis has taken months to recover. The damage to your body is enormous.
“He’s putting his life on the line. I hope world leaders will take notice, stand up and take action urgently,” said Ferguson.
She added that massive melting of glaciers would affect coastlines around the world and that plastic pollution correlated with the warming of the oceans – for example, microplastics dumped in the ocean, produce heat.
On July 29, 2021 the World Meteorological Foundation tweeted that according to @PolarPortal – “a massive melting event is taking place in #Greenland” which, while not as extreme as in 2019 in gigatons, “the melt area is larger than two years ago”.
According to the Nasa Global Climate Change site, Greenland’s melting glaciers currently contribute more fresh water to sea level rise than any other source does.
Monitoring changes in Greenland’s glaciers, Nasa’s airborne Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) mission drops probes from a plane into the sea to track how seawater is melting glaciers and lend insight into the future of sea level rise. The glaciers are melting six or seven times faster today than they were 25 years ago, and OMG is the first Nasa mission to focus solely on what the ocean contributes to this ice loss. This will help to improve calculations of future melt rates so that coastal communities worldwide can take timely precautions to limit the damage from higher seas.
The Independent on Saturday