Turkish scientist sentenced to 15-months in jail for publishing environmental study

Turkish government is trying to silence its own.

Turkish scientist sentenced to 15-months in jail for publishing environmental study
  • Turkish scientist, Bülent Şık, was arrested for publishing research about a public health crisis.
  • His research found that local soil, food and water was directly related to a high incidence of cancer in Western Turkey.
  • Şık published the results on his own after being denied the right to by the Turkish government.

Turkish food engineer and human rights activist,Bülent Şık was recently sentenced to 15 months in jail after he published a study that linked toxic pollution to a higher rate of cancer in western Turkey.

Şık was the former deputy director of the Food Safety and Agricultural Research Center at Akdeniz University. He was convicted by the government for disclosing classified information after publishing scientific research in a Turkish newspaper back in April 2018.

Following his sentencing in Istanbul, Şık's lawyer, Can Atalay, stated, "Bülent Şık fulfilled his duty as a citizen and a scientist and he used his right to freedom of expression."

Most scientists are legally protected throughout the world and allowed to disclose their findings. It's especially important to protect scientists when they report about the environment or reveal other damning information.

Findings of the environmental study

Ironically enough, the study was first commissioned by Turkey's Ministry of Health. They set out to find out if there was a connection between the toxicity of soil and the surrounding food and water supply and high rates of cancer in western Turkey.

Şık led a team of scientists for 5 years, where they eventually discovered dangerous levels of pesticides, heavy metals and a mix of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in their food samples.

Residential water sources were also deemed unsafe to drink because of lead and other heavy metal pollutants. The study was completed in 2015, yet the government would not take action to disclose or discuss the findings. After sitting on this information for 3 years, Şık published the results of the study in Cumhuriyet, an opposition newspaper that's been a recent target of the government's media crackdown.

Şık's brother is an opposition member of Parliament and was a former journalist at the paper.

Amnesty international's Senior Campaigner on Turkey Milena Buyum stated:

"As a scientist, Dr Bülent Şık believed he had a duty to ensure that his research findings revealing the presence of carcinogenic pesticides and other toxins in agricultural products and water, were in the public domain…Dr Şık publicized his findings because the authorities failed to act upon them. His actions are protected under the right to freedom of expression which includes the right to freely disseminate and receive information. If found guilty and imprisoned, Amnesty International would consider him a prisoner of conscience."

Pertaining to the case, the Ministry of Health did not argue that what Şık published was not true, but they instead assert that the information was confidential and should not have been released. Which essentially just seems to be a legal way for them to prosecute him for this offense.

The Pesticide Action Network UK also spoke out against this governmental crime:

"Dr. Şık exercised his constitutional right to free speech and constitutional duty to protect the environment when public authorities failed to warn and take precautions to protect the public. The scientific correctness of his research findings has not been invalidated by any individual or institution. It is legitimate for a scientist to release research data when there is a risk of serious damage to public and environmental health."

Not going down without a fight

Turkish law dictates that Şık could have avoided jail entirely if he expressed public regret. He declined to do so.

His lawyer provided the statement he made to the publication Science.

"[H]iding data obtained from research prevents us from having sound discussions about the solutions. In my articles, I aimed to inform the public about this public health study, which was kept secret, and prompt the public authorities who should solve the problems to take action."

The appeal he's made comes with an extra set of risks, since the maximum penalty is now 12 years in prison, much more than the initial 15-month sentence he'd originally received.

This is a disconcerting trend as a number of Turkish scientists have either been fired, prosecuted or been imprisoned since the government started persecuting dissenters following a failed coup back in 2016.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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