Jean-Claude Gascard: Putting science first


23 February 2014

Jean-claude Gascard : Putting science first

A renowned scientist who enjoys working in the field, Jean-Claude Gascard has taken part in countless polar missions over the last thirty years. Oceanographer emeritus at france’s national centre for research (cnrs) and pillar of the Damocles programme up to 2010, he was scientific director of the arctic drift project between 2006 and 2008. Let’s meet this key figure in the history of the Tara.

Gascard knows the polar environment well and is thus a constant source of support. « It is an undersatement to say that Jean-Claude Gascard has helped us a lot » says Étienne Bourgois. « As coordinator of the Damocles programme he played a determining role. You could say he was the soul of our polar drift project. » It is hard to avoid such praise when presenting a research scientist who began focusing on polar oceanography in the Labrador Sea in 1976 and who, between 1983 and 2005, was involved in numerous polar research programmes for the European Union.

This dynamics physicist attended the Pierre & Marie Curie University in Paris and was once chairman of the Arctic Ocean Sciences Board (AOSB). Today he is one of the most well-known researchers at the CNRS and is recognised internationally as an expert on air-sea-ice interactions and thermohaline circulation, the latter being the large-scale circulation of seawater caused by differences in temperature and salinity. With his calm tone of speech and clear voice, Jean-Claude Gascard is a likeable professor who has successfully applied science to the issue of the Arctic. As coordinator of the European Union’s Damocles project (2005-2010) and the ongoing ACCESS programme to study changes in Arctic sea ice, he believes that in the future « the ice cap will exist but differently to the way we know it today. »

« Having the Tara at our disposal for the Arctic Drift project between 2006 and 2008 was remarkable, I can tell you. It was 115 years after Fridtjof Nansen did the same aboard the Fram between 1893 and 1896. » Indeed the Tara, which Gascard describes as a genuine « space shuttle placed in polar orbit » brought back from her drift a « war chest » of research for the forty-eight laboratories involved in the Damocles network. This research opened up scope for analysis, the results of which have already given rise to twenty-one scientific publications. « The Tara is the only ship capable of studying Arctic change in detail, over long periods and at a realistic cost. With biologists, oceanographers, glaciologists and experts on the atmosphere working aboard, the Tara is a unique observation platform which can withstand the tremendous physical pressure exerted by the ice. Under the Damocles project, Tara was the centrepiece of an extensive set-up comprising satellites, relay antennae, logistics bases and sophisticated technological equipment » explains Gascard.

He goes on to recall some of the project’s unforgettable moments: « When we settled the Tara into the ice, in September 2006, the captain of the Russian ice-breaker which I was on – we were looking for a spot to position the Tara in the ice floe – called for me in the middle of the night to make me sign a disclaimer freeing the Russian authorities from any responsibility in what was to follow. Clearly, in their view, our goal was unachievable. It was very poignant when, three days later, we left our eight men aboard. Later on, in April 2007, when the Tara was close to the North Pole and we had to meet up with her to drop off the Damocles scientists who were going to relieve the crew, who were exhausted and on the verge of breakdown, it was also very moving. And when in January 2008 I saw the Tara leave the ice floe unscathed after 507 days in the Transpo lar Drift Stream, it was particularly emotional. When you experience those kinds of moments, they stay with you forever. »

« But, it’s not over and will never be over with Tara » , says Jean-Claude Gascard. In a month from now (August 2013), I will be joining the Tara to perform further surveys in the famous Canadian Northwest Passage, as part of the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition. The polar enthusiast returns to the ice-fields once again.

Michel Temman, editor-in-chief of Tara’s “special 10 years” journal