Pete Lourie filming aboard the icebreaker CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent


In the fall of 2016 writer Peter Lourie went aboard Canada’s oldest and biggest icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea to join a 26 scientists and 55 Canadian Coast Guard crew for a month to produce video stories.  Peter’s trip was funded in part by the National Science Foundation via a grant to atmospheric chemist Prof. Paul Shepson, Dean of SOMAS (The School for Marine & Atmospheric Sciences) at Stony Brook University.  This was part of the “Broader Impacts” for a project called the “O-Buoy Project.”  O-Buoys are ice-tethered buoys that have been used by a group of collaborating scientists from the U.S. to study ozone and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and how they are connected, in part, through climate change.  Many of the O-Buoys were deployed into the ice in the Beaufort Sea from the Louis S. St-Laurent.  To date, 15 O-Buoys have been deployed all over the Arctic Ocean. 

Peter Lourie and Paul Shepson started their collaboration at Barrow (now Utqiagvik), Alaska, where the first O-Buoy was tested.  It was there that Peter worked on three books, “Arctic Thaw,” “The Polar Bear Scientists,” and “Whaling Season” and a website, also funded by the National Science Foundation, Arctic Stories.

The Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project Aboard the Icebreaker Louis S. St. Laurent

Some daily dispatches I sent back from the Louis to WHOI, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.  They give a good idea of what each day looked like. Woods Hole Dispatches


Dispatch Sample 

“My cruise on the venerable and largest Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker the Louis S. St.-Laurent this past fall occurred during one of the most ice-free autumns on record. So I was sure lucky to experience some icebreaking, at least for a week or so, and to get out on the ice once (it wasn’t safe to work on and many people out there put their feet and legs up to their hips through the ice into the water), but for a lot of the month we had open water and so worked from the ship. The sun even came out three times that month. Unheard of, said the Newfoundland crew who had traveled many times to the Beaufort in October.

“Being on an icebreaker for a month is not everyone’s idea of a good time. Many friends scrunched their faces when they heard about my upcoming trip and practically barked “Horrors!” All that metal. A bunch of guys stuck on a little ship in a big frozen ocean!

“When atmospheric chemist Paul Shepson from Purdue University asked me if I wanted to go board to collect videos of the ship, operations and the crew and scientists for the National Science Foundation, I jumped. Icebreaker? Seemed preposterous. You mean it actually breaks up the ice to go places like the North Pole, where few have gone?

“I simply had no idea what it would be like. And I admit I was scared of so much time stuck with a bunch of strangers in a metal tub the size of a football field. I didn’t want to bunk with anyone (I snore), but I wanted the experience. The phrase “Once in a lifetime” comes to mind. Right.

“It’s so strange how just when you think a region of the planet might be doomed and perhaps even irrelevant because the ice that made it famous is now disappearing, in fact just at that very moment of crisis, it actually becomes an important center of human activity and thought and study, and even of political and economic relevance. The ice is melting fast but the Arctic is the happening place.

“Not only does global warming show its effects faster and more deeply in the Arctic (the canary in the coal mine) but the fragile ecosystem breaks down faster, too. Things look dire for the polar bears and the seals they depend on. For longer periods every year, the Arctic is staying ice-free. And there’s a report out this week that it’s 36 degrees warmer there right now than in most years. The forming ice is very thin….”

Peter Lourie


The fall 2016 scientific studies aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent were part of an international program that conducts annual surveys in the Beaufort Gyre – a portion of the southern Canada Basin, north of Alaska, whose water circulates clockwise. Scientists on board were seeking to understand the impacts of climate change in the Beaufort Gyre. Over this month-long journey, 26 scientists successfully recovered and redeployed three moorings, completed 65 rosette casts at 53 locations, launched 59 expendable CTDs, collected zooplankton net tows at both 100 and 500 meter depths, and deployed 40 ocean drifters.

Participating organizations were: JOIS, which stands for Joint Ocean Ice Studies, an important Canadian contributor to international Arctic climate research through the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project (BGEP), a partnership with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the Pan-Arctic Climate Investigation (PACI), a co-operation with Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC).

Read more from my daily dispatches here: Woods Hole Beaufort Gyre Project Dispatches for 2016

Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project 

Joint Ocean Ice Studies 2016 Report

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution




Arctic exploration reveals profound changes over time. Initially, observations were localized, limiting broader insights. Yet, through extended research, climate change’s impact became evident. Recollections of historical ice formations contrast with today’s thin, fragile layers, often less than a meter thick. Despite this, the crew eagerly embraces Arctic challenges. Preparation for a busy day of installations underscores the privilege of Arctic work. Icebreakers, once solely for breaking ice, now support diverse scientific endeavors. With adrenaline and a hint of danger, each moment on the Arctic sea ice is cherished as a unique opportunity for discovery.

Read More


In an era dominated by modeling and remote sensing, the importance of direct observation is often overlooked. Yet physical presence in the Arctic remains invaluable for understanding fundamental biogeochemical cycles and their responses to human-induced changes.


To maximize their time during Arctic operations, science crews work around the clock, conducting research 24 hours a day. The scientists split into two groups, affectionately known as the Day Watch and the Night Watch, and work twelve-hour shifts – from noon to midnight, and midnight to noon respectively – ensuring all opportunities to collect data are taken seized. 


Although detailed analysis of samples is usually completed in fully equipped labs after missions, several Canadian Coast Guard ships – including the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent – are outfitted with interim labs on board so researchers can immediately examine and study specimens or data collected. 


Mike Dempsey, a scientist from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the lead for the 2016 JOIS expedition’s Night Watch team, relates his favorite memory of incredible, sparkling Arctic ice from one of his trips to the North.


Steve Page is a research scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada and was part of the Night Watch on this year’s JOIS mission. Working at the hands of the CTD rosette, he knows just how important long term data collection and analysis is to better understand changing Arctic waters.


XCTD probes collect highly detailed oceanographic data – including water temperature and salt content – from moving platforms, like the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent.  Here, Alek Petty has just shot the probe into the water by a launcher and monitors as it gathers data and transmits it back to the ship through the transmission wire.


Descending into the cold abyss is a regular job for the rosette, which is the primary instrument for ocean monitoring. As the rosette is lowered and raised through the water column, it collects information on conductivity, temperature, and depth, among others. 


Rosettes also collect water samples at different depths on their return voyage to the surface. Water is stored in a series of large containers, where back on board it is then transferred into smaller samples for analysis, giving researchers insight into the various chemical and biological properties of the water in a specific area. 


These bongos don’t make music, but they do work in perfect harmony to collect zooplankton. As seen here, these side-by-side sampling nets catch plankton while skimming through the water, and are then hosed down into small buckets for later analysis. 


Kelly Young studies marine zooplankton, to try to identify the community and life cycle of these tiny creatures.  Zooplankton are typically microscopic but can grow to the “sizeable” length of a couple centimeters, making them almost as near to the bottom of the marine food chain as you can get. With swimming appendages too small to swim effectively against currents, they dart short distances in bursts of energy, as seen here. 


Sarah Zimmermann, Chief Scientist on this trip, is from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences in British Columbia. Despite the setbacks because of the thin ice cover this year, Sarah was still pleased with all the data they we’re able to collect over our month long journey – data that will be added to the existing 14 years of material from JOIS, which gives us a better understanding of what’s happening in this area of the Arctic.


Mostly natives of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, the 55-person crew of the Canadian Coast Guard’s largest icebreaker, the Louis S St-Laurent, played an integral role in this mission. From the skilled officers and technicians who piloted us safely through ice, to the talented cooks who kept our stomachs full, everyone on board was fundamental to the mission’s success. Together they operated like a well-oiled machine – a very skilled and welcoming machine, ensuring we survived and enjoyed Canada’s high Arctic.


Colin Lavallee, the helicopter pilot on board the Louis during this expedition, describes some of the typical tasks you’d be likely to see him doing during science missions – and the importance of being prepared when you’re miles deep in the Arctic.


The clinic might just be one of the most important rooms on board the icebreaker – though I hope no one ever has to experience why firsthand. As nurse Emilie Francoeur explains, sometimes a Canadian Coast Guard ship could be miles and miles away from a city equipped to handle a patient’s injuries, which means the clinic needs to be prepared to stabilize injuries or illness before patients can seek full treatment.  


Subsistence hunting and fishing are an important cultural and social activities of many Aboriginal groups. They provide food and work for the community, summon laughter, and engender friendship. Canadian Coast Guard Logistics Officer, Nathan Whiffen, shares his moving story of his eyewitness account of a harvest in a Northern community. 


Being at sea is a truly humbling and awe-inspiring experience that involves a certain level of risk. The sea is unpredictable – there can be storms, unexpected hazards in the water, and even a small event can turn into an emergency situation. Canadian Coast Guard winchman, Kirby Vatcher, shares two at-sea experiences as a rescue specialist onboard the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, where training and swift action allowed him and his colleagues to save the lives of those involved. 


Taking to the high seas straight out of high school, Canadian Coast Guard Captain Wayne Duffet is no stranger to sailing or to icebreakers. Here he shares some of his experience and knowledge working with icebreakers. 


The Arctic is a truly magical place – but you don’t have to take just my word for it. Members of the crew speak to the powerful and seemingly irresistible draw the North has, so much so that when they speak about it, it’s just like poetry. 


Being in the middle of the Arctic, stuck on a ship that is so isolated from civilization, is a truly unique experience – one where you come to rely heavily on your crew and others who understand and work in the North as you do. Everyone becomes very tight knit, bonding, playing bingo and cards together, and forming a kind of temporary, makeshift family. Even when I came onboard for a short time, I felt like I was making some real friends – something that made me feel welcome and warm. 


The storerooms and refrigerators onboard the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent rival grocery stores and restaurants, having everything from scallops and ice cream to…a drum set. Here, Mike Goodwin, the storekeeper, gives me a quick tour to see how a large icebreaker keeps its occupants comfortable during long Arctic trips.