An initiative led by the government of Portugal and it is partnered by over a dozen countries to transform the Atlantic Ocean into an epicenter where a series of scientific experiments are performed. It is named the AIR Center; this acronym stands for the Azores International Research Center, a multi-institutional cooperative project led by Portugal and its role has been to set up an international research center in the Azores Islands for monitoring the climate on Earth, based on research studies performed on ocean water. The area of the Atlantic Ocean is about 106,400,000 km². The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world in size. Including its seas, it bathes the largest number of countries greater than any other ocean and its area corresponds to a third of the oceanic waters in the world and a fifth of the surface of the Earth.
An ocean of opportunities
The idea of using the Atlantic Ocean as the target for scientific research studies did not necessarily arise at the AIR Center. In 1999, scientists from diverse countries held a meeting in Saint-Raphaël, France, at a symposium named Ocean Obs 99. There, they presented diagnostics on everything researched until that time and they also planned the next steps for investigation. “I led a group of international scientists and highlighted the negative and positive aspects of the research studies performed on the South Atlantic. That group was active during the first decade of the 21st century and even developed some monitoring systems”, tells Edmo Campos, a Brazilian researcher, who is the director of the “Instituto de Oceanografia da Universidade de São Paulo” (The São Paulo University Oceanography Institute) (IOSUSP). PIRATA and SAMOC are some of the systems mentioned by him and mobilize more than a hundred researchers.
PIRATA is the Code Name for Prediction and Research Moored Array in the Tropical Atlantic, a multinational cooperative program including Brazil, South Africa, France, and the United States. The program installed monitoring equipment along a line that extends from southern Brazil to South Africa. Brazilians have accepted the responsibility for installing the equipment for the western monitoring line, and the members from the United States are responsible for the instruments in the center of the ocean.
And the South Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (SAMOC) was an initiative that involved South Africa, Brazil, France, Argentina, and the United States from 2011 to 2016. Its researchers confirmed the salt water circulation patterns in the Atlantic Ocean are undergoing transformations that can bring about unpredictable consequences in the climate all over the world. The group seeks to understand the phenomenon in order to estimate the foreseeable impacts. That new phase in the study is now called the SAMBAR project including around 50 investigators and it should be concluded in 2022.
The AIR Center will not substitute these research studies but will complement them. “The Center will make a very large contribution to solving problems in tropical regions, as they are in a very dynamic region. Thus, for example, it will be possible to understand the role of the ocean on cyclones and also other climatic effects in that tropical region, as well as biological and geochemical aspects”, explains Campo. “The idea that we can finally work on the Atlantic, for the first time in history, like a basin, so we can understand from the Arctic to Antarctica, what marine dynamics are like, and what that influence will be like on all of us who live on dry land”, explained the head coordinator of the “Oceanos, Antártica e Geociências do Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia, Inovações e Comunicações” (The Oceans, Antarctica, and Geosciences of the Science, Technology, Innovations, and Communications Ministry (MCTIC), Andrei Polejack.
The AIR CENTER has required a great diplomatic effort to finally become a reality and consolidate its institutional foundation. The government of Portugal has been committed to signing a series of agreements in order to achieve partnership for this endeavor; with Brazil and some African countries, such as Angola, Cape Verde, and South Africa that have shown strong interest in participating in the project since the very beginning. “In order to achieve a better planet in a short and medium range time period, we need to invest in research, and especially on oceans. So we can harness as much as possible from what they can provide us or in performing oceanic research studies that are still just beginning”, Gilberto Kassab said, the Brazilian minister of Science, Innovation, and Communications Ministry.
“The Air Center must further impel the cooperation between Brazil, the European Union, and South Africa on the conveyor of our efforts here in Portugal to intensify scientific exchanges and the teamwork of the researchers”, believes Manuel Heitor, the Portuguese minister of Science, Technology, and Higher Education. “The development of this plan is highly symbolic, since two important scientific nations in the southern hemisphere recognize the need to cooperate on a large scale in facing global challenges”, confirms Naledi Pandor, the South African minister when launching the research Plan on Southern Hemisphere oceans, signed by Brazil and South African in July 2017.
A commission was defined for setting up the research center to create an institutional funding and development plan during the year 2018. Two meetings were scheduled: one in May, in Cape Verde and the other in November, in the Canary Islands. The project will initially be created as a Portuguese legal regime institution, but the objective is that parliaments from diverse member countries approve integration for an international agreement. This is expected to take place by the end of 2019.
The blue economy
The Atlantic Ocean investigation also serves economic purposes, as well as climatic issues, since; the study results can reveal the entire potential of the Atlantic Ocean ranging from ores and other resources for achieving wealth. Although, there is no consensus among the scientific community, diverse studies have indicated that less than 5% of oceans have been explored. There is a growing demand for research and innovation in industrial activities linked to the ocean besides traditional activities such as fishing and navigation, such as offshore wind generation and also industrial extraction of oil and gas, as well as mining.
The Brazilian government, for example, has already invested US$ 70 million dollars in Atlantic Ocean research studies to define the economic potential from ore deposits located off its continental platform. And the European Union has already made 60 million Euros available for funding investigation surveys in the Atlantic Ocean by 2020. “It is very beneficial to know more about all these potentialities that are present in different domains linked to the AIR Center and utilize that knowledge for creating innovation and thereby benefit the general population”, highlights Maria do Rosário Bragança Sambo, who is the Angolan minister of Higher Education, Science, and Technology.
This entire agenda involving governments, researchers, professors, and business sectors are included in the United Nations Sustainable Development Program, especially in goal 14 related to ocean conservation and usage, the seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. This search for answers through the research study on the Atlantic Ocean remounted from the XV to XVI centuries when the world became closer by the great navigations having the Atlantic Ocean as the great protagonist. Is the AIR Center bringing us back to the Age of Discovery?
Building the AIR Center was proposed by the Portuguese government during the 1st Sub-commission Meeting on Science, Technology, and Innovation Subjects between Brazil and Portugal. At that time, the Portuguese delegation showed great interest for more cooperation in the Atlantic Ocean, emphasizing the opportunity for harnessing existing scientific frameworks for developing an international research platform.
The importance of the Air Center was discussed for strengthening scientific and technological cooperation in the fields of climatic changes, space, oceans, and energy. The Bethlehem Declaration was signed, a document that defined partnership guidelines for research in the Atlantic Ocean.
An understanding memorandum was signed between Brazil, Portugal, and South Africa for the purpose of strengthening cooperation for implementing the AIR Center during a conference named “A New Era of Blue Enlightenment”, focused on fostering oceanic research study cooperation.
Ministers and representatives from 11 countries discussed the creation of the AIR Center.
Two summit meetings took place in Cape Verde and the other on the Canary Islands, on such themes as governance of the center and sources of funding.
10 countries were founders of the Air Center. Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Cape Verde, and India. France is another possible partner in the future. The AIR Center even has two associate members, The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
Why the Azores Islands?
The Azores Islands are equipped with the infrastructure for housing a space research field, installations for measuring atmospheric radiation, and an oceanographic and fishing department, for coordinating research studies in the fields of energy, seas, climatic changes, and observation of the Earth as well as a strategic geographic location.