If you've never heard of a supraglacial lake before, that's okay. They're not exactly common since they only form at the top of glaciers.
Glaciers are usually frozen. The idea that somebody can swim in this 0-degrees centigrade lake is as graphic as it gets to the effects of climate change. But Lewis Pugh is no stranger to the cold, or graphic illustrations of climate change on our planet.
You see, Antarctica is melting
As the United Nations patron of the Oceans, Lewis has been swimming in the world's icy oceans, donning nothing more than a speedo in order to highlight the dire need to protect these marine areas. In 2015 Lewis undertook a series of death defying swims in the Antarctic Ocean to influence world leaders to make the Ross Sea a Marine Protected Area (MPA).
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The Ross Sea is one of the most pristine and untarnished areas in the world and was under threat from human influences including commercial fishing and global warming. And in his latest Eastern Antarctica expedition he has enlisted the help from Russia once again. This time in the form of Russian ice hockey legend and UN Patron of the Polar Regions Slava Fetisov will be my second. He was the last person Lewis spoke to before diving into the icy water.
"Slava was the greatest defenseman in history. In Russia he enjoys the same level of admiration as Pelé does in Brazil. 'The world now needs more defenders and protectors,' he told me when agreeing to join the team."
For Lewis, the swim beneath the glacier took many weeks of preparation, having trained with a what he calls young guns to up his strength and push his limits, along the beaches of the Isle of Lewis.
Ice tunnel sonic boom
But the actual swim could not have prepared him for the dangerous sonic boom moment in the Ice Tunnel.
"I didn’t realise the world contained so many different shades of blue," says Lewis.
"I was surrounded by ice, with the light refracting back at me from every side. I’ve never been more dazzled. I was in East Antarctica, I was underneath the ice sheet, and I was swimming. It wasn’t exactly what I had planned."
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Lewis describes a psychedelic mix of blues; luminous turquoise, rich royal blues that turned to violet and then it became so dark he had to take off his goggles in order to see.
"That’s when I realised just how dangerous my situation was."
"There is a saying that the darkest hour is just before dawn. I was halfway through the tunnel, and virtually blind, when I heard an almighty boom above my head. It sounded like someone had fired a cannon inside the tunnel. I knew what that sound meant: the ice was on the move."
Lewis says he has never swum so fast in his life. The water temperature was just above 0°C, the air temperature well below that, and he was frozen to my core.
"Swimming in a dark tunnel with sharp stalactites hanging just above the water necessitated a slow and careful stroke. But I’ve never swum as fast as I did to get out of that tunnel! All the blues in the world were not as beautiful as the light I saw as I emerged at the end of it. I swam for 10 minutes and 17 seconds. It felt like 10 days before the team finally pulled me out."
East Antarctica is the coldest place on earth. Yet for Lewis he says, "Everywhere I looked there was water rushing off the ice-sheet, carving long ravines deep into the ice sheet, or pooling into supra-glacial lakes."
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According to data shared on his blog, "scientists from the University of Durham recently discovered over 65 000 lakes on the surface of the East Antarctic ice sheet. This coincides with significant melting of the sea ice around the coast of Antarctica.
The mission with this swim was ultimately to "demonstrate the rapid changes that are taking place in Antarctica, and to call for the urgent establishment of a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around Antarctica, starting with a one million km2 MPA here, in East Antarctica".
"An MPA 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."
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