Laurent Touchart: "We Drank Water From Lake Baikal, Just Scooping It Up With A Bucket"

Laurent Touchart during an expedition to Lake Teletskoye. Photos from the personal archive
Laurent Touchart during an expedition to Lake Teletskoye. Photos from the personal archive

Laurent TOUCHART became one of the laureates of the Crystal Compass National Award this year. He is rightfully considered the founder of French limnological geography. He was the first French geographer to devote his scientific career to the study of lakes. But there are not so many of them in France – to a greater extent it is a country of ocean and sea coasts as well as rivers. It is not surprising that Touchart's scientific interest brought him to Russia, and for several decades the scientist has had strong ties with our country. Despite the known difficulties, Laurent Touchart still came to the ceremony honoring the laureates of the Crystal Compass Award which proves a simple truth: genuine science and human relations are above the momentary political state of affairs.

Laurent Touchart (1965) is a professor of geography at the University of Orleans. Founder and first president of the Association of Geographers, Limnologists, and Environmental Researchers of France, president of the Geographical Society in Limoges, president of the limnological association Géolimno. Member of the French Geographical Society and the Society of French Explorers and Travelers. Member of the Scientific Council of the “Centre d'Etudes pour le Développement des Territoires et l'Environnement”  (CEDETE).

He is the author of five monographs and many articles on the nature of Russia. He actively advocates strengthening Russian-French scientific ties and is engaged in educational activities. In particular, in 2023 he gave a lecture on Lake Baikal in Paris, held a symposium with online participation of Russian scientists at the branch of the University of Orleans in the city of Chateauroux, and organized an exhibition of the Russian Geographical Society at the University of Orleans.

Laurent Touchart was awarded the Crystal Compass Award in the “Scientific Achievement” category for his long-term contribution to the development of lake science.

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Photo from the personal archive of Laurent Touchart
Photo from the personal archive of Laurent Touchart

"Something like the ocean"

- Monsieur Touchart, when did Russia appear in your scientific biography?

- In 1991, I had just finished studying geography (majoring in oceanography) at Sorbonne University and was looking for a topic for my dissertation. At the same time, one of the deputies of the municipal council of Thonon-les-Bains (Editor’s note: the largest city on the French shore of Lake Geneva) tried to establish a political and cultural twinning between Lake Geneva and Lake Baikal. He turned to me and asked if I would be willing to make my scientific contribution to this collaboration. My supervisor, an oceanologist by profession, enthusiastically embraced the idea: Lake Baikal is so large that it sometimes resembles the ocean in some ways. And for me, at that time a young French geographer, a scientific trip to Siberia was an unheard-of adventure.

- What interesting things did you discover in a scientific sense during your communication with your Russian colleagues?

- At the institutes of Irkutsk Akademgorodok, I got acquainted with detailed large-scale mapping as well as the basics of the geosystem approach. This has forever changed my understanding of geography and my approach to geographical research. French universities teach to give preference to research at the regional level. In Russia, I got acquainted with large-scale mapping  on the scale of facies (geofacies). In France, operational thinking was taught theoretically in my time. In Russia, I saw that it is actively used in practice.

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Baikal during a storm. Photo: Aleksey Arzomasov, participant of the RGS’s contest "The Most Beautiful Country"
Baikal during a storm. Photo: Aleksey Arzomasov, participant of the RGS’s contest "The Most Beautiful Country"

- You speak Russian perfectly! How did you learn it?

- At school and university, I studied only German and English. And I learned Russian because it was necessary to write a PhD thesis on the topic of comparing Lake Baikal and Lake Geneva. I studied by myself: at home in France with the help of audio cassettes in 1992, and then in Russia during my first internship in 1993. I remember Irkutsk residents telling me: "Here we will teach you how to speak well!" And indeed, I learned a lot of nuances. But the main thing, of course, is that knowledge of the Russian language allows me to read, understand, and quote Russian scientific literature on almost any topic.

Following Alexander Dumas

- Where, besides Lake Baikal, have you been in Russia?

- I have visited a number of cities in Siberia and the Far East: Ulan-Ude, Khabarovsk, Yakutsk, Novosibirsk, Barnaul, Gorno-Altaisk, and several settlements in the Altai Mountains, Krasnoyarsk, Lesosibirsk, Yeniseysk. I made several excursions around the Sayan Mountains. I have been to Sochi and some other places on the Black Sea coast and in the Caucasus. Of course, I have been to Moscow many times, visited St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir, Uglich.

- Where else would you like to visit?

- I am interested in any new place in Russia: this is both the Putorana plateau and the lakes of Karelia. And I also hope to come to Astrakhan someday.

- Why Astrakhan?

- On the one hand, for literary reasons: once I read with interest a story about a trip to these places by Alexander Dumas. On the other hand, I would like to see with my own eyes an oasis in the Russian desert and understand how a city was built in the Volga Delta at the confluence of the river into the largest lake on the planet.

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The Volga Delta. Photo: Fedor Lashkov, participant of the RGS’s contest "The Most Beautiful Country"
The Volga Delta. Photo: Fedor Lashkov, participant of the RGS’s contest "The Most Beautiful Country"

- You observed our country during the stormy metamorphoses. How has Russia changed in your mind?

- The first time I was in Russia in 1991. An unknown world opened up in front of me – the USSR still existed back then. It just so happened that it was also our honeymoon. And I must say, my wife Helen and I were delighted. Two years later, I came to Russia to work on my dissertation, and I remember that the economic situation was really difficult. And in 1996, too, when I came to your country again. Since the 2000s, a period of impressive growth has begun. And for several years now, it is in Russia that I find freedom, cleanliness, and prosperity.

- Please remember some memorable incident from your travels to Russia.

- In 1993, during my expedition to Lake Baikal, we drank water from the lake without any treatment, just scooping it with a bucket. This simple method fascinated me. And by the way, I'm still alive and well! (Laughs)

The unfathomable mystery of the lakes

- Why is it necessary to study lakes?

- Lakes contain more water than rivers, and these are usually fresh water reserves. They generate a variety of human activities. Such reservoirs are a kind of microcosms, semi-closed and semi-open systems, sometimes reaching the degree of biological endemism.

Lakes always retain an element of mystery. Even when a bathymetric map of such a reservoir exists, many depths still remain unknown. Deep lakes often cause a kind of "dizziness" due to the effect of refraction in the transparent water column. The human eye tends to see the same slope underwater as above the water, but in fact it may be different. All this adds magic to the unfathomable mystery of  lakes.

- And if we talk pragmatically?

- Since the water in a lake is not flowing, its ability to self-purify is lower than that of rivers. Lakes are more fragile ecosystems than rivers, so the scientific study of lakes is important for their conservation.


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Limnology is far from an in-office discipline. Laurent Touchart studies a pond. Photos from the personal archive
Limnology is far from an in-office discipline. Laurent Touchart studies a pond. Photos from the personal archive

- There is fundamental and applied science. What is closer to you?

- Sometimes it happens that, working on practical issues of territorial planning and the preservation of natural features of specific regions, we make fundamental scientific discoveries.

I feel morally satisfied when, for example, for specific projects, I propose solutions for organizing a spillway into the lower pound in order to reduce the impact on the water regime. My contribution to fundamental limnology is the development of a new theoretical classification of mixing (rhythms of destruction of thermal layers) of lakes.

- What is the place of aesthetics in your interest in lakes?

- Of course, in addition to science, the beauty of lakes and the landscapes surrounding them contributes to the development of interest in such reservoirs. I am fascinated by the waves rushing ashore. I could look at them endlessly!

- You have studied reservoirs in many regions of the world. Which of them are the most interesting, from your point of view?

- I am mostly familiar with lakes in Europe and Asia, a little with lakes in Africa. My personal list of top 5 stand-out lakes looks like this: Baikal, Lake Teletskoye (Russia), Balaton (Hungary), Como (Italy), Lake Geneva (France, Switzerland).

Science needs space

- The Russian public is concerned about the environmental challenges on Lake Baikal. Lake Geneva is smaller in size, and its shores are densely populated. However, this does not lead to major environmental problems. How do you manage to avoid them?

- Lake Geneva has faced serious problems related to eutrophication (Editors’ note: "blooming" of water) in the 1970s and 1980s. Since phosphate detergents were banned, its health has improved. On the other hand, the disturbance of the natural environment of most of its coastline has undoubtedly become irreversible.

- In 2001, you defended, as they would say in Russia, your doctoral dissertation (HDR) on the physics of water temperature. In short, what are the main conclusions of the study?

- It is difficult to draw conclusions in just a few words. Undoubtedly, my main discovery was the following: ponds several meters deep have a thermocline (Editors’ note: a sharp change in temperature in one of the water layers). Since these are small reservoirs, the area of the water area exposed to wind is small, as a result, the thermocline here is quite stable and durable. In France, before my research, it was believed that thermocline in ponds lasted only a few hours. I have shown that it can remain unchanged from a few days to several weeks. One of the consequences is the fact that the discharged lower layers of water have a low concentration of oxygen.

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Laurent Touchart at the opening of the exhibition of the Russian Geographical Society at the University of Orleans. Photo: RGS Center in France
Laurent Touchart at the opening of the exhibition of the Russian Geographical Society at the University of Orleans. Photo: RGS Center in France

- You have a lot of scientific papers devoted to the nature of our country. Among them is a large monograph “The Natural Environment of Russia: The Biogeography of Immensity” ("Les milieux naturels de la Russie: Une biogéographie de l'immensité”). What is it about? Is "immensity" an artistic image or a scientific category?

- Using the French word “immensité” ("immensity", "vastness"?), I wanted to convey the idea that Russia, on the one hand, is as big as a continent, and on the other hand, consists of wide plains free from obstacles, not violating zonality. Thus, it is the only state in the world where such a zonality of natural environments is developing.

- Your other work is called "Russia and Climate Change: A New Geography of Cold" (“La Russie et le changement climatique: Une nouvelle géographie du froid”) Why is the geography of cold new?

- It was a catchy name designed to attract the attention of the French public. It demonstrates a new contradiction between the cold, which the French media now consider a good thing, and the fact that the cold remains largely an enemy of the Russian economy, which costs your country a lot of money.

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Laurent Touchart with his wife Helen in Moscow before the Crystal Compass Award ceremony. Photo: Evgeny Uvarov
Laurent Touchart with his wife Helen in Moscow before the Crystal Compass Award ceremony. Photo: Evgeny Uvarov

- What is your research interest today?

- Initially, I am a physicogeographer, but I am increasingly interested in the human, social, and cultural geography of lakes. And now I am interested in artificial reservoirs: storage reservoirs, fish ponds, mill rapids on rivers, etc

- What worries you as a scientist in the modern world, and what makes you feel optimistic?

- I am disappointed by the scientific dogmatism developing in the West, and the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult for researchers to express new, independent ideas. I think it's important to keep the right to make mistakes. Nevertheless, I am optimistic, because I see that young students are able to reflect. I hope they will be able to defend freedom of thought in the new world.

Ayvar Valeev