The Coldest Swim on Earth

On September 7, 2021, Lewis became the first person to complete a multi-day swim in the Polar Regions, when he swam across Greenland's Ilulissat Icefjord, fed by the world’s fastest moving glacier.

The 7.8 km swim was completed in 14 sessions over 12 days.

Later in the year, Lewis attended the UN Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow. He used the story of his swim to impress upon world leaders the speed of the climate crisis. He asked them to move beyond long-term commitments toward urgent action.

No one will escape climate change. it will affect every creature on this planet, great or small. Tackling the climate crisis is the defining issue of our generation.

Why here?

Glacial Retreat

The Ilulissat Glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the world's fastest moving glacier. On average it moves of 30 m per day. Due to its sheer size and speed, it is one of the most studied glaciers in the world – legend has it that the Ilulissat Glacier calved the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

Currently, the glacier discharges around 30 cubic kilometres of ice per year into the sea.

Now, due to warming air and ocean temperatures, the glacier is melting at an accelerating scale and pace. If the entire Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt, it would lead to a global sea level rise of over seven metres.

Any sea-level rise will be devastating, with one billion people living less than 10 metres above sea level, and around 230 million within one metre. This includes those living in London, Tokyo and New York.

There is no better place in the world than Ilulissat to show the dramatic impact of the Climate Crisis.

Icefjord Swim

The mouth of the Icefjord is 7.8 km wide. Lewis’s route was not straightforward – he had to deal with icebergs and brash ice, which clogged the mouth of the fjord. The water was near freezing (0°– 3°C), and the wind chill  plummetted temperatures deep into negative numbers.

The cumulative effects of swimming, day after day, in water that may drop to minus 1.7°C, had never been tested before.

The Coldest Swim on Earth

How mighty is Ilulissat?

Ilulisat Glacier is legendary. For the past few centuries it has highlighted the devastating impact of atmospheric and ocean warming in the Arctic and developed our understanding of how glaciers are responding to climate change.

The glacier lies south of Ilulissat on the west coast of Greenland, 250 km north of the Arctic Circle.
The glacier drains 6.5% of the Greenland icesheet into the Ilulisat Icefjord and produces around 10% of all Greenland's icebergs – including, legend has it, the one that sank the Titanic.

It is the fastest and largest glacier (by discharge) in Greenland.

Some of the icebergs breaking from the glacier are over one kilometre tall and several kilometres wide.
At its terminus the Illulissat Glacier currently flows at about 30 m per day, but it flows even faster in the summer.  

In 2004 the Ilulissat Iceford was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Ilulissat is the fastest-moving glacier in the world and drains a catchment area of 110,000 km2, or around 6.5% of the whole Greenland Ice Sheet. Over the last 100 years, it has retreated about 25 kilometres. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, its floating ice tongue disintegrated and the glacier flow doubled in speed. Recent work shows that the speed peaked at over 17,500 metres per year in the summer of 2012, nearly 48 metres per day, but has since slowed to around 30 metres per day.”

Professor Chris R Stokes

Department of Geography, Durham University

Greenland Ice Sheet Facts

• Second largest ice mass in the world, after the Antarctic Ice Sheet;

• 2,900 km long, 1,100 km wide;

• Over 3 km thick in places;•  2,850,000 cubic kilometres of ice;

• Lost almost 4,000 billion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2018, causing the global mean sea level to rise by almost 11 mm.

Ice or die

We are an ice-dependent species.

Around 800 million people depend, in part, on meltwater from hundreds of thousands of glaciers that are rapidly shrinking around the world.

At the same time, ice at the polar regions plays an important regulatory role in the global climate system and sustains unique marine ecosystems.

Now, as the polar regions and mountain glaciers melt, sea level is rising and lives are on the line.
No ice, no life.

Follow the Science

What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.

The Arctic is one of the most rapidly warming regions of the planet, with temperatures increasing at 2-3 times the global average – a phenomenon known as ‘Arctic Amplification’.

The Arctic is feeling the effects of the Climate Crisis more dramatically than anywhere else on Earth, with glaciers, sea ice and permafrost all melting. What’s more, scientists tell us that these changes in the Arctic are also impacting climate and weather patterns further south in North America and Europe.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts a global mean temperature rise of between 1.5°C and 5.5°C over the next century, but that is likely to be even higher in the Arctic.

Their 2021 assessment predicted “increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts . . . intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.”

The science is clear: if temperatures continue to increase, the polar ice caps will melt, and sea levels will rise.

Unless we take urgent action to decrease global temperatures by seriously lowering our global CO2 emissions, low lying islands and coastal cities will, quite literally, drown.

Global Climate Emergency

The devastation of our natural world will affect every single person on this planet, every future generation, and the whole of the animal kingdom. It will impact every nation and every business.

We can avert the worst effects of climate change if we meet the Paris Agreement to limit warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. But to do that we have to act fast and we have to start now.

We have a brief window of opportunity to solve this crisis. The opportunity will soon be behind us.
We are in a race against time.