Turkey ‘catching up with research in Antarctica’
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While Turkey’s scientific interest in Antarctica dates back to the mid 1960’s, its research in the course of the past three years has gained speedy momentum, Burcu Özsoy, who coordinated expeditions to the South Pole, has said. Turkey has finally set up a base on the land in the last expedition last February, and several states say Turkey has done more in the last three years than many countries active there since the 1900’s, according to Özsoy, the director of the Turkish Polar Research Center.
When did Turkey’s interest in Antarctica start and what triggered this interest?
We conducted three national expeditions, the first being in 2017 and the last being in 2019. While our expeditions are recent, Turkish scientists’ work in Antarctica in the framework of bilateral cooperation dates back to the mid 1960’s. We have three locations in Antarctica named after three Turkish scientists. Atok Karaali is the first scientist to go to Antarctica in 1967, and his surname has been given to a rock due to his high level activities. “İnan Hill” is named after Professor Umran İnan, who is currently the rector of Koç University and who has also done very valuable research in Antarctica.
And Tilav Cirque is named after Serap Tilav, the first woman scientist to go there. I conducted my first research in 2006 at the U.S. base. Turkish scientists have done their research hosted by other countries. But in view of the accumulated experience and high competences of the Turkish scientists, the assessment that the same capabilities should be provided to them was endorsed by the state and the initiative to set up a scientific camp started to gain momentum after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meeting with his Chilean counterpart in 2015.
In 50 years maybe 15 Turkish scientists went to Antarctica, while in the course of the past three years almost 60 Turkish scientists were able to go there. If you use other countries’ bases, you can only send one or two, whereas when we have our own base, we can send many more, and on top, we have the possibility to invite countries which have previously hosted us. So in 2017, we conducted our first national expedition.
What did you try to accomplish in these three expeditions?
The first was about determining where we should set up our camp. Antarctica belongs to no one and its status is regulated by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. In accordance with the Antarctic Treaty System, we targeted an area far from other countries’ bases because there is no need to do research in an area where research is already going on. But we also had to find a location close enough for logistical purposes. At the end we are talking about a region 14,000 kilometers away where the nearest settlement is 1,000 km far.
Our first expedition was followed by a workshop participated by over 40 institutions including universities. As a result, together with the polar research center and the Industry and Technology Ministry, we prepared a strategy on the science program for 2018-2022. We chose a location where we could do maximum research, and that was the Horseshoe Island.
Turkish taxpayers could question the need to allocate fund from the national budget to a research in Antarctica.
Some 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered. Some 70 percent of human body is of water. When something happens in a part of our body, it affects our entire body. There is no such thing as a change in one part of the world not affecting Turkey. The Earth’s South and North poles are like the refrigerators of the world. The region and the glaciers retain input that shed light to our past. We are talking about climate change and global warming due to greenhouse emissions. We have recently witnessed in Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts storms unseen in our history.
The input we can find in the polar regions can help us find some answers. But it is a huge region and the more countries conduct research there, the more scientific community will get strengthened to find answers.
The more scientists we have working there, the better it is, because there are too many diverse scientific fields to work on, from physical sciences and geology to biology. We also want to contribute to the scientific community.
What is the focus of Turkey’s research?
There are four categories in our 2018-2022 strategy document. Obviously we cannot take along all the scientists working on all the different fields. After all there is a quota. Following our call each year in May, this year we received over 40 applications. On our second expedition we had 15 projects on earth sciences, and on the second again, 15 on life sciences. I cannot categorize our work under one headline, it is very diverse.
In our last expedition last February we had 17 Turkish participants and seven foreigners from Bulgaria, Ukraine, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Chile and Germany, which had hosted us previously. A meteorological station was set up by the meteorology division. We also had Şahika Encümen who became the first Turkish woman to dive without air tanks in Antarctica.
What excites you more in the research in Antarctica?
In this year’s expedition we set up three modules for eight people for a period of three years. So we now have, in a way,a roof in the land to get ourselves under. Our target is to set up a base in the coming years. We have to accumulate some experience. At this stage I want to get back to the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The Industry and Technology Ministry, which assumed responsibility in terms of the organization of Antarctic studies and activities under the auspices of the presidency of the republic, as well as the Foreign Ministry, are the main actors to participate in the ATS meetings. The Turkish Polar Research Center of Istanbul Technical University is also a key stakeholder. We carry the flag of science and we are coordinating the works, but according to the ATS states are the main actors, so it is the flag of Turkey that is flying in Antarctica. Turkey has ratified the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, also known as the Madrid Protocol. So Turkey says I am in Antarctica as a state. It is very encouraging that the state, starting from the presidency, is taking scientific research in Antarctica very seriously and endorsed the right strategy. What excites a scientist is the fact that the state also shares the same enthusiasm. This is an enthusiasm shared from the top, by the presidency, all the way down to the ordinary citizen. The fact that Turkish scientists are doing research in Antarctica is making ordinary men and women very proud.
Other countries have started their work in the early 1900’s. In 2019, we had our third national expedition. Other countries are telling us that by the work accomplished in just three years, Turkey went ahead of nearly half of the other countries which have been working there for 120 years. We have made a lot of progress in just three years, and this is not a simple operation between Ankara and Istanbul and the climate conditions are extraordinary.
WHO IS BURCU ÖZSOY?
Dr. Burcu Özsoy is a scientist who works with sea ice remote sensing in Antarctica. Özsoy is the founding director and still the head of the first Turkish Polar Research Center (PolReC).
She coordinated Scientific Antarctic Expeditions for many years including administrative issues. She has been the expedition leader of Turkish National Antarctic Expeditions for three years.
She also developed polar outreach and education activities. During the last 10 years, she reached almost 20,000 students to transfer her knowledge about climate change and scientific importance of polar regions.
She is the scientific member of many important climate/ocean-related societies and organizations including Southern Ocean Observing System (SOOS).