World Federation of Science Journalists

Amundsen - Olivier Dessibourg

Olivier Dessibourg
Head science editor,Newspaper Le Temps

A Swiss in the Arctic
If I got to be get here in the Arctic, their is maybe one main reason behind this: my endless passion for sciences. After a master degree in physics and mathematics at the small but familiar and very good University of Fribourg, I hesitated between teaching and doing something else. It was finaly something else, that was in back of my head for a while: explaining to as many people I could science as mysterious, fascinating and at the end as simple as it is. After two years learning the job of journalist at the local newspaper “La Liberté”, I spent two years as the Deputy Head of the Press office for the Swiss national science foundation. Which I left in 2004 to join the daily newspaper “Le TEMPS”, based in Geneva, which is the major french-speaking quality paper in Switzerland. I lead its Science section, and had the priviledge to see my contributions be reproduced in other famous newspapers such as “Le Monde” (France), “Le Soir” (Belgium), “Courrier International” (France), and “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” (Switzerland, german). Winner of different science journalism awards, I love to travel a lot around the world, on the tracks of all the scientist following the most nobel goal ever: try to understand the world we live in.


June 4th

From the womb to the sky: two views of the Arctic

One can easily wonder what life is on an ice breaker. Well, it’s not boring at all. At least for a journalist that spends seven days on one of them – the bar is friendly, the lobby is always a place to laugh, the food is good (I would never have imagined so many nice things could be aboard: shrimps, scallops, roasted and smoked ducks, good steaks, etc..). As it is sometimes hard to find a little space just for yourself (except when on the ice...), I understand that some researchers would think different than me after six or even twelve weeks onboard. As the 8th Leg ends tomorrow (June 5th), most of them, and the Amundsen crew as well, are happy to go back home to Winnipeg or Québec, where the weather forecasts announce a beautiful 30°C. One of those happy ones is definitely Vincent Grondin, chief engineer onboard the Amundsen, who bought a Piper plane three months ago and cannot wait any longer to fly it again. But before leaving, he agrees to give me a tour of the engine room, which is the original one and dates from 1979 with the Amundsen.

My first impression is that it is almost unbelievable that there is so much space in the womb of the ship. It’s loudy, ok, but it is much cooler than expected. “It’s like a small town, so Grondin. We produce our own drinking water from the sea, our electricity trough a huge generator, the heat of course, and we have a kind of sewage system. The dirty waters are purified in three different reservoirs, one containing degrading bacterias that we feed with air, and the last one sending UV on the waters to kill any germ, before the waters are released in the ocean.”

But the most impressive are of course the engines. Six Diesel engines producing each 2950 horsepowers are coupled to two electric engines (6800 hp each) that drive the 1.6 meters tall propellers at the rate of 160 rounds per minute. With it’s fuel capacity of 2700 cubic meters, it’s hard to say how many nautical miles can be made, as this depends on how much ice the ship as to cross. “In May, we used an average of 12 cubic-meters a day. But once, it reached 35 just to achieve 23 miles (well, almost nothing), as we were stuck in the ice”, says Grondin. He agrees that a fossil fuel ice-breaker is ecologically worse than nuclear one (like the Russian use), as it produces CO2 – not that great on a mission program studying climate change caused mainly ... by CO2 increase. “But with the latest, you also have to get ride of the nuclear waste, which is not easy at all. And with a Diesel one, we can do best choices to reduce fuel consumption a lot.” One solution is to go on open water.

To know where the channels of open water stand, Captain Stéphane Julien, who runs the Amundsen as easily as a Ferrari, takes most of the days a helicopter ride. On June 3rd, I was lucky to go on the ride with him.

From the sky, the iceflows look like a puzzle that has be torn appart on a table, and that just waits to be put in place. As we leave the Amundsen, the ship becomes a reddish dot on the huge white surface decorated with turquoise structures (melt ponds). The impression from the air is just fantastic. And give a deep feeling of the uniqueness of this region of the world. At that moment, and as the end of my stay on the Amundsen has almost come, I thought of the words of Maïke Kramer, a german scientist that I interviewed just before, and who is studying the ice meiofauna, that is the small organisms living right inside the ice. A very passionnate PhD student at Kiel University (Germany) who is working very hard to get as many samples of those little beasts as she can (a nematod, that is a worm, is shown in the picture ©MaikeKramer). "You know, she told me, I do the most I can because I take it as a priviledge to document as much as possible those animals right now. Because, who knows, as things are going, there may be no more ice in the Arctic in the next few years. And so this part of biodiversity will have disappeared for ever..."

With this words, I would like to deeply thank the World federation of science journalists and the CFL Project members, especially its leader Dave Barber, to have given me this fantastic opportunity to spend this week on the Amundsen. There will be more articles to come in the daily newspaper I work for in Switzerland ( So keep posted!

June 2nd

Two shows at the same time...

After a few unvarying cloudy days, a high pressure front was anounced on the weather forecasts. But in the morning, the skies were still a deceptively gray... That didn't affect much of the team's mood, as pretty much all of them are looking forward to seeing the end of this leg coming (on June 5th). But a nice sunshine would certainly give them a new punch of energy for the last three days before they leave the Amundsen.

The ship parked in the fast ice not far from Cap Bathurst, and will stay here for another day. So a all bunch of science stuff was put on the ice. Dave Barber's group will install a pop-boye that will go up and down in the water every hour to measure again salinity, temperature and depth. This instrument will stay here for weeks, and send its data to a satellite so that scientist will have time series.

Further, another group is putting up a full weather station on a aluminium tower. On starboard side of the Amundsen, Randy Scharien (PhD student, University of Calgary) is instaling a huge radar system on the ice. "For now, some of the satellites produce images with contrast that can just show structures. But it is sometimes difficult to give them a scientific meaning. So what we are doing here is calibrate all this: the radar sends microwave on the snow covered ice on one side, and on the darker ice covered with turquoise melted snow water on the other side. The waves are then reflected back differently, which gives us a possibility to caracterize what is the physical meaning of the signals we get."
At the end of day, when most of the science work is done, a team led among other by Roger Memorana, the only Inuit onboard the Amundsen and wildlife monitor, wants to dig a big hole into the ice. Not to fish, even though the food onboard the ship is almost done as we get to the end of the leg... They are digging this 2 square-meters hole for the divers that will join the crew next week, and go for under ice dives in search of algae and different types of planctons that grow under the ice. But you don't dig a hole in the ice like you would in the ground: the people first made a perimeter of holes with their coring machine. Then, all the challenge was to take the inner two tones of one meter thick ice out of the hole. After a few hours trying all the possibilities, they finally managed it with the help of the grooming machine.

By that time, around 10 pm, the sun was still lying above the horizon. And would not go down completely, as this region sees now the midnight sun. The yellow and blue colours are fantastic, but also peacefull to look at. That gives the Amundsen a very nice appearance. I am the only one outside on the decks. Maybe that all the scientists have already had enough of these unique moments. I personnaly will never have... But when I got back to my room, I understood the reason why nobody was looking at such a simple but nice spectacle: they were all watching another show, the sixth overtime in the fifth game of the National Hockey League Stanley Cup Final...

June 1st

Hunting for cod larvae

Differently to most of the days, the Amundsen stopped this time right into open the water. Allowing so Jacques Gagné (DFO-IML) and his team to deploy their big nets to try to catch what they are almost desperately looking here for: arctic cod larvae. "We want to caracterize and describe the populations in this part of the Arctic, says Gagné. As there is here no comercial fishing, there is a huge lack of datas about the abundance and species diversity of fishes. We want to establish what are the best conditions for these fishes to grow in". And therefore, they try to study it before the climate heating change all the ecosystem here, bringing new fish species coming from southern seas, like the atlantic cod in the Baffin region, or for example salmons not seen before by the locals in the Beaufort.

For some aspects, climate change is not bad for everything. Gagné agrees that with the ice desapearing, this could open new fishing regions that haven't been exploited until now. "The fishing capacities is already much larger than the demand right now, so Gagné. So, if it is proven that the ressources hear are big, it won't take long until the fishing companies come here."

Under the eyes and the microscope of Caroline Bouchard (PhD Student at Univeristé Laval, Montreal), the result of today�s probe are fine, but not extraordinary: a few arctic cod larvae among a lot of tiny copepods (looking like shrimps with huge antenas) and some small jelly fish. Not like that day last year when the team did probe at a station were a bank of arctic cod was lying deep in the water: "There were some of them that were stuck in the other science instruments we used. It was for like finding gold in a mine", recalls Gagné, for who the even bigger problem is not to catch the slow moving larvae, but the adult arctic cod to have a good estimation of the populations.

June 1st

Making holes in the iceflows

What is the influence of climate heating on the dispersion of thermal energy and light on the edges and under the ice-flows ? And what are the consecutive impacts on the ecosystme living right under the ice? Those are, simply put, the basic questions David Barber's team, professor at the University of Manitoba, and leader of the IPY-CFL project, want to find answers to.

To do that, the best place to work is obviously directly on an ice floe. So on June 1st, we went off on a so-called skippy boat - a flat boat with an engin propulsion not into the water but in the air, like a plane, that can go both on water and ice. Similar ones are used on the waters of the Everglades in Florida in search of the perfect flow for the experiment. Nice and funny ride! Actually, it wasn't difficult to find one, not far from the mother ship Amundsen. But at all time, Dave reminded me to keep an eye on the neighbouring flows: it doesn't seem like they move, but they smoothly do. And if they pack together, we might not be able to get back on the water, because of small rifts formed by the collisionning ice flows. "It's never funny to call the bridge and ask for the helicopter to rescue us because of that", warns Dave Barber, laughing.

So, on the ice flows, the team formed by Klaus Hochheim and Andrea Rossnagel starts to manually drill small holes in the ice, every three meters starting from the edge, and then only at 30, 60 and 90 meters. "Because when you're far from the edge, there's anyway not so much light anymore", justifies Dave. Then Andrea would let a CTD instrument slide into the hole, and then down into the water until a depth of 50 meters. This instruments measures conductivity (that is the salinity of water), temperature and depth, but also photosnthetic activity. The goal is to describe the layer structure of water: as the ice melts, more clear water stays on top of the water column, right under the ice, forming a good and well-lit environment for algae to grow in. But the scientists want to caracterize this very precisely, as the melting of ice in the arctic is due to increase.

Meanwhile Andrea is doing her measurements, Dave and Klaus leave for a while on the skippy boat to do mostly the same kind of experiences, but on the open water this time. I would stay on the edge at a very precise point, to serve as a distance reference point for them. So, this lets me plenty of time to admire the magnificient landscape as a sunray is coming through the dark clouds on the horizon. Time also to think of how fast I would have to run towards Andrea, more than a hundred meter away, and the only one to have a gun, if a diving polar bear was coming out of the water nearby... I can run fast, but would that be enough, knowing that this mammal can easily run more than 40 km/h?

May 31th

Hello Arctic World

I am Olivier Dessibourg. As a winner of the World Federation of science journalists' Amundsen Competition (, I have been invited to spend one week on the canadian research ice-braker Amundsen, named after the famous norvegian polar explorer, Roald Amundsen. With Tatiana, a russian journalist, and Dave Barber, the boss of the CFL project (University of Manitoba), the transfert was made on a plane between Inuvik (North West Territories) and Sachs Harbour, on Banks Island. A plane from which, at one point, after two hours of sleep, we saw a small black and smoking dot on the nearby ice. A dream? No, our residence for one week. The Amundsen's helicopter would finaly bring us on it.

After already two full days onboard, after having tried to fix once for all where all the different steps, rooms and facilities were, and especially after having already taken part into many interesting science activities, I have already plenty things to tell about. First, and not the least, a thought: new may sometimes be beautiful, but not always efficient! Inuvik, where I was supposed to take a plane to somewhere in the Beaufort sea region to come onboard the Amundsen, is certainly at one end of the world. But I would never think I would loose track of my bag in one of the centers of the occidental and modern world, London, more exactly London Heathrow and its brand new but messy Terminal 5... Anyway, after one day running in Edmonton after socks, underpants and trousers, instead of taking the best of Inuvik and the beautiful MacKenzie delta, I was very happy to welcome the kindness of the Amundsen crew, which immediately lent me what I couldn't find on time. Especially the boots (remember, Benni ... readers: see previous Amundsen blogs)! So, I was almost ready for this fantastic arctic experience. That bloomed for me exactly the next day (May 30th).

As Dave Barber came onboard with me, he immediately wanted things to happen and planned a full day on the ice. It was very interesting to see all this young scientist full of motivation - or was it the cold that made them work fast and efficiently?- do their different jobs: ice coring to get the brown algaes that live stuck in the ice close to the water, measuring the albedo of the ice and snow, getting some water and ice samples in search of microbiological elements, or using a kind of bell to try to measure to fluxes of CO2 between the air and the different snow and ice layers. A lot to try to understand... Like a big puzzle about the big picture of climate change and its impacts in the Arctic that will, I hope, fit in place in seven days as all the projects participants are, in a way, encouraged to work and think together...

Here is a small survey in pictures of who is doing what:

Nicolas-Xavier Geilfus (Universities of Liège and Bruxelles), among others, is trying, by mean of analysis of the air but also ice-cores, to qualify and quantify the fluxes of carbon dioxyde between the Arctic ocean and the atmospher, through the ice. This is important, because until now, all the climate models (including those used in the IPCC report) have not taken into account that such CO2 transfert could talk place

Nathalie Asselin (University of Manitoba), working with Andrea Rossnagel, measures the albedo of the ice-flow, that is the percentage of incomming light that is sent back towards the sky. The albedo for fresh snow, for exemple, is around 90 whereas the albedo from an ocean is very low (less than ten), because the open water is black. It therefore reflects very few of the thermal incomming energy, but instead "eats" it and so gets hotter.

Benoît Philippe (Université du Québec à Rimouski) studies the small algae that live in the lower layers of the ice-flow. Those algaes are the first step in the food chain, as they are eaten by the zooplancton which is then eaten by fishes, which are then eaten by seals, or which may finish onto your plate with a delicious white wine...

Joannie Martin (Université Laval) wants to measure the amout of algae and phytoplancton nutriments in the water at different depth to establish the caracteristics of algae proliferation. For that, she has built a very complex experiment full of tiny tubes that transport the water samples. Being on a ship like the Amundsen doesn't mean that everything must be kept simple...

Caroline Sevigny (INRS, France) mesures different parametres of the water below the ice from the "moonpool", a hole made in the bottom of the Amundsen that has direct access to the ice-cold water

photos by Olivier Dessibourg

Application essay

What a fantastic opportunity you offer to spend a week on a Canadian icebraker! But why should a science journalist from a swiss daily french-speaking newspaper like me be part of the chosen ones to do this unique experience? There are actually four main reasons.

The first and most important to me is to "tell the true story about the Arctic". It is now clear to many people that the extra heat going with climate change can directly be responsible in the melting of the polar regions. But beyond that simple summary, the exact causes and effects are not clear at all to them, as the natural processes happening in the Arctic, for exemple, remain far from simple. Yet the alarmist message in the medias is still often kept at a simplified or low level, when not sometimes exagerated or caricaturated.

Exagerated not in the sense that the Arctic is not melting, but more in that some journalists reporting on climat change use those simple facts over and over without going much into details. One clear reason for that is that occasions to get the big but accurate picture are time- and effort-demanding, if not sometimes very complexe when talking about understanding purely scientific articles.

And what about the "caricature"? When Alastair Fothergill, in his beautifuly-shot new movie "Planet earth", shows a polar bear swimming in search of a more and more vanishing iceshelf, and says the animal may drown for not finding one, he rings the bell one more time. The general message seems fair to me. But the filmmaker does not mention that such a marine mammal can swim up to 100 km, so that this single screenshot can be misleading. Moreover, when danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, in his new book "Cool it", tries to argue that to save the polar bears, one should first tell the Inuits not to hunt them anymore (because hunting kills up to ten times more bears than climate change), he does not either take into account that hunting polar bears is as deep in the roots of the Inuit culture as, for the Swiss, eating a cheese fondue after a day on the skis: the problem is more complexe than that... People now deserve to hear and know more than just an alarmist message, to finally get a subtle presentation of the effects of climate change in the Arctic.

My first reason to spent this week on this icebraker would therefore be to describe in details what is really happening in the Arctic, not on the basis of what I could read, listen to or watch from my desk, but based on what I could experience, live, touch, feel, smell and talk about with excellent scientists, and maybe with the people living there, the Inuits. Scientific facts written in a paper, although crucial, speak much less than a live experience on the exact place where the facts are happening. And having a scientist explaining directly to you, in front of a polynia, what is going on in such a wonderful ecosystem brings a precious background for further writing about the field. This links to the second reason.

Even a small and rich country, Switzerland puts the environnement first on the list of what people worry about. Le TEMPS' aware readers therefore seek for quality, relevant, efficiant, and deeply argued new informations, like the six pages serie I managed last summer about the IPY (see attachement). I am sure that such a trip on this icebreaker could bring exactly this to them. And as Switzerland has no direct access to the sea, but rather a physical view "cloistered" by mountains, its people like even more to read quality stories about far destinations, natural spectacular areas and the problems happening there.

The third reason is more economic and geopolitic. Along with the Arctic ice retreat comes the possible opportunity to have access to new seabed ressources and to open new sea routes. Canadian Prime minister's recent decision to increase the icebrakers fleet in that region is not irrelevant regarding this very interesting issue, which should again be presented in the medias with details and background. I presume such a trip could give me many clues to understand this subject more deeply. Besides, reports about this, and of course the Arctic region that is linked to it, will certainly be read with attention in a region like Geneva where many environment- as well as politics-oriented international organisations have set their office (UNO, WMO and IPCC, UICN, WWF, etc.), and also where Le TEMPS is located.

Finally, as I already explained, the opportunity to do field reporting brings much more than working from a desk, like the Tintins on the frontpage, but costs also much more. Even though not a poor newspaper, Le TEMPS does not have the endless financial ressources that could maybe make such a trip anytime easily accessible for me. Being part of the winners of this competition would therefore give me an extraordinary opportunity to explore a region I would otherwise have very few possibilities to visit.

Thank you for offering science journalists all over the world the possibility to live such a great experience.