Dr. François Jacques Saucier (1961-2008)


Second of three children, François J. Saucier was born in Drummondville, QC on June 5, 1961, but lived there only for a few months. After a stay in Bathurst, New-Brunswick, then in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, the family settled in Laval in the summer of 1966. As a child, he was already an intense and adventurous boy, often coming back home with some injury to a hand, a knee or his face. After primary school at the Léon-Guilbault school at Laval, he went to the Le Grand high school, and then to Collège Stanislas in Outremont (using the school system from France). His stay at that school was beneficial to his writing. But his free spirit and need for independence did not fit well in this rigorous environment, and he completed his high school education at the Mont-de-Lasalle school in Laval. He then went to the Ahuntsic CEGEP, where he studied physics and mathematics with pleasure and ease. He originally leaned towards a university education in landscape architecture.

But, one day he saw a poster, with a beautiful sunset backdrop, promoting studies at Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQAR). He felt attracted by wide spaces and decided to go there for undergraduate studies, which he began on the fall of 1982. He succeeded brilliantly. Already at that point, major aspects of his personality were well set: an effervescent mind, a pronounced liking for handicraft work, a keen sense of observation for things and people, a deep intellectual curiosity accompanied by a solid physical intuition and an intense drive to face challenges. At the end of his undergraduate studies, he earned the prestigious NSERC 1967 Science and Engineering Scholarship. After an additional year spent at UQAR as research assistant on various projects, he went by motorcycle to Oregon, where he would pursue doctoral studies. He became a student of Professor Gene Humphreys at the University of Oregon. Professor Humphreys recalls him in the following words:

"In describing François to others, it is easiest to say that he was a ten in every human characteristic: intellectually brilliant, socially charming, stunningly handsome, and physically impressive. François transferred to the University of Oregon to work in geophysics. His primary interest was in geodynamics, so he created this program. He chose the modeling of southern California deformation as his first project. I remember him stating this goal on a Tuesday. When I arrived to work the following Monday, I was greeted with "So, what do you think, boss?" He had written his own finite element code (still in use) and had California meshed and modeled, all within a week. I could provide many stories of impressive accomplishments. Suffice it to say that François is, simply, the best student I've ever seen, anywhere. He was at the same time disciplined and freewheeling, academically well prepared and creative, honest and aggressive. But what is most meaningful to me is François the person. I recall a deep and challenging friend who shared observation and inspiration on the nature of the world, the joys of living, the value of French-Canadian culture, and the human need to accomplish things greater than one's self. I recall the "So, what do you think?" grin and the sparkle in his pure blue eyes."

By graduation, François Saucier was courted by Caltech to fill a geodynamics faculty position, based largely on his modeling of the subduction process. He declined this offer because he wanted to return to Quebec and pursue a career in physical oceanography. In 1991 he became an employee of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), as researcher in physical oceanography at Institut Maurice-Lamontagne (IML), located in Mont-Joli, Quebec. At first he had to adjust to his new research field, which, as usual, he did in earnest. He was equally interested by theory and by data and field work. While contributing to an important field campaign at the mouth of Hudson Bay, he was thinking about adding numerical modeling to the tools available at IML for studying the marine environment. Those efforts in 1993 led to the creation of the numerical modeling laboratory at IML. That is where several important projects would be brought to completion during François Saucier's career. A very ambitious goal was set very early for that laboratory: to produce an operational model capable of providing daily forecasts of water levels, currents and ice for the St. Lawrence gulf and estuary.

The first important achievement in that context was the production, under François Saucier's direction, with a team of colleagues and research assistants, of the Atlas of Tidal currents for St. Lawrence Estuary, which covers from Cap de Bon-Désir to Trois-Rivières. Meant to replace a classic atlas dating back to 1937, this new atlas, which quickly became well known, is a reliable and highly appreciated guide to a great many St. Lawrence sailors. The work shines from the great quality of its graphic presentations and its organisational clarity.

The numerical model of the St. Lawrence gulf and estuary was developed by taking as a starting point the Backhaus numerical model previously implemented at the Institute of Ocean Sciences (IOS), Sidney, BC. Over the years, a long and patient work led to the progressive accomplishment of the goals originally set forth. Quite early, an ice model was grafted and a module was added to enhance treatment of horizontal fluxes by means of the flux-corrected transport approach. Based on the predictions of the Canadian Meteorological Centre (CMC) atmospheric circulation model, continuous atmospheric forcing was introduced in 2000 and daily forecasts for the gulf could be produced thereafter. Then an important improvement was made by incorporating a k-epsilon model for the vertical turbulent fluxes. Adequate treatment of these fluxes remained a continuing preoccupation. During all those years, applied oceanography was a driving factor stimulating François Saucier's scientific research. Each operational project was an occasion for additional improvement of the numerical simulator. The model thus became a tool able to capture the variability of the St. Lawrence at hourly, daily, seasonal and even inter-annual scales. All this culminated into a major achievement: by 2003, the model was capable of reproducing seasonal cycles over a 7-year period in a completely autonomous manner, i..e. using only natural forcings (atmospheric, fresh water input and boundary conditions), without any external intervention on the state of the system along the way. This was an old dream of François Saucier and he was, justifiably, very proud of having achieved it. His work contributed to the implementation of the first marine prediction services in Canada. Daily forecasts produced by the model are now available to the general public on the web site of the St. Lawrence Global Observatory (SLGO).

By the time he returned to Quebec in 1991, aware of its importance for global climate, François Saucier was already highly interested by the impact of fresh waters on the Nordic water circulation. Some of his main contributions stemmed from his interest for Hudson Bay, the world's largest body of water to completely freeze in the winter and to be ice-free in the summer. In 1992-1993, he contributed to an ambitious field campaign that provided, for the first time, year-long measurements of the heat and salt exchanges through the mouth of the bay. Several instruments were lost in this campaign though, and in the following years François Saucier pioneered a different approach by developing in collaboration a numerical model of Hudson Bay. This model featured comprehensive interactions between the atmosphere-ice-ocean components, and it was used in 1998 to examine long-standing questions such as the effect of regulated runoff or global warming. His commitment to Hudson Bay went on as he largely contributed to the development of the next field campaign (the MERICA cruises). He also pursued his modeling effort, obtaining in 2004 a highly-realistic model that showed for the first time the definite role of tides in the seasonal cycle of heat and salt in Hudson Bay. These efforts also provided a basis for interesting studies in Foxe Basin, revealing the existence of an annual pulse of dense water at depth, associated to the opening of polynyas in that basin.

Head of the Physical Modeling Section at IML since 2002, François Saucier obtained in 2003 an MPO research chair at the Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski (ISMER), part of UQAR. He was thus fulfilling his long time wish of getting closer to students. Then in October 2004, he became a professor of physical oceanography at ISMER-UQAR. Warmly received by his new colleagues, he easily integrated with the team, and quickly took ISMER's interests at heart. He was a passionate and fascinating teacher. In his courses, he put strong emphasis on giving to each student a small research project, which was to be carried out as if to lead to a publication. His aim was to share part of his know-how as a researcher. The special contact that his luminous mind had with nature was manifest in his teaching as in his research, and inspired his students.

François Saucier was always concerned with the ecological health of the great St. Lawrence system, which he loved so much. As soon as he came to ISMER, he threw himself into the adventure of large scale physics-biology coupling, with a biogeochemical model of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, soon applied to Hudson Bay as well. Development of these models led François Saucier's team of physicists to open up their code to biologists, a memorable adventure for all involved. There resulted the first models of that kind to be applied to these two environments. These works paved the way to the dynamic modeling of the secondary production, copepods in particular, which depend on biogeochemical processes for their feeding. Other innovating applications in the realm of physical-biological coupling included models built to understand and predict harmful algal blooms in the St. Lawrence gulf and estuary and the dynamics of ice algae in Hudson Bay. Realistic reproduction of the latter was made possible for the first time thanks to the ice-ocean model. It was François Saucier's insatiable curiosity and intimate understanding of the unique challenges raised by the interdisciplinarity of oceanography that made possible the numerous and varied applications of his work to marine biogeochemistry. Some continue to bear fruits through the young scientific careers he propelled into the future.

In the spring of 2008, François Saucier was awarded the President's Prize "for his leading role in two papers that represent a major advance in ocean-ice modelling in Canada, as well as in our knowledge of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Hudson Bay". One of the papers was published in Journal of Geophysical Research in 2003 and the other in Climate Dynamics in 2004.

François Saucier was also a pioneer in the study of interactions between the atmosphere and our oceanic coastal environment, initiating at the end of the nineties, collaborations with atmospheric science specialists of the OURANOS group and the Canadian Meteorological Center (CMC). These collaborations led to the development of coupled atmosphere-ice-ocean models used for climate research and meteorological forecasting in Eastern Canada. The first Canadian operational coupled meteorological model, now being built at CMC, is based on the numerical model of the gulf of St. Lawrence developed and supported throughout his career. For this achievement, his colleagues of CMC and IML received for him on June 16, 2009, the Environment Canada Geoff Howell Innovation Award.

François Saucier had an incomparable vision of team work, encouraging students, assistants and colleagues to help each other while forging their own opinions. He was adamant that each publication issued by the laboratory should be reviewed by all members, to validate it. He hated wasting time in administrative trivia and held it that the best judges of the quality of research work were peers. From both the personal and the professional point of views, he was consistently attentive and mindful of the well-being of his assistants and close collaborators, whom he treated as family. He managed to forge a strong sense of belonging within the teams he led in the modeling laboratories at IML and ISMER. He always encouraged professional self-surpassing, leaving much room for creativity, scientific debate, advanced theoretical learning and participation to field campaigns. His deep scientific involvement did not prevent him from nurturing his friendships, which to him were of primary importance. He did everything intensely, even resting.

At the end of fall 2005, François Saucier was diagnosed with an advanced cancer. He received the devastating news with the courageous spirit that was his. Well determined to overcome it, he comforted loved ones by displaying his calm and serenity. He expressed no bitterness but instead his gratitude for the good things that life had bestowed upon him, at the same time maintaining his hope to continue. All the while he kept his wish to transmit his knowledge, passion and know-how to students.

At the end of nearly three years of stoic resistance, death prematurely took François Saucier on July 6, 2008, at the age of 47. In his characteristic manner, once he became forced to admit that time would run short on him, he devoted his last energies to putting down on paper his understanding and vision of the St. Lawrence. Through his passion and commitment to doing very good science, he motivated his students, assistants and colleagues and provided them with a remarkable example of pursuit of excellence. He will continue to inspire those who came in contact with him.

In 2009, in his honour, the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society renamed its longest standing Society award specific to oceanography (first awarded in 1982) the François J. Saucier Prize in Applied Oceanography . François had received the award in 2002.