Klaxon sounds over nuclear fallout soon to emerge from melting glaciers

11 Apr 2019

Image: © Romolo Tavani/Stock.adobe.com

Decades of atomic bomb testing in icy regions could unleash dangerous levels of nuclear fallout from melting glaciers in the years to come.

In one of the first studies of its kind, an international team of researchers has concluded that a rise in sea levels is not the only worrying consequence of glaciers melting due to climate change.

In fact, decades of atomic bomb testing in the Arctic have resulted in significant amounts of nuclear fallout freezing in glaciers. As the ice begins to melt in the face of rising temperatures, we are likely facing a ‘ticking time bomb’ where fallout could find its way into the environment and our food chain.

Presented at the 2019 General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union, the findings documented the presence of fallout radionuclides – a product of nuclear accidents and weapons testing – across multiple sites in the Arctic (Sweden, Greenland and Svalbard), Iceland, the European Alps, the Caucasus, British Columbia and Antarctica.

Worryingly, these surveys showed that this radioactive material was found at all of the surveyed sites, many times at a concentration 10 times higher than non-glaciated environments.

Speaking with AFP (via Phys.org), one of those involved in the research, Caroline Clason of the University of Plymouth, said that the levels seen in these sites have some of the highest concentrations of fallout outside of nuclear exclusion zones.

Role of nuclear disasters

Describing how these nuclear tests resulted in this situation, the researchers said that when the fallout enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it returns to Earth as acid rain. While this can be absorbed into plants and soil, when the fallout comes down as snow and eventually becomes ice, the radioactive material can become concentrated and dangerous when melted.

Interestingly, the team has detected fallout from the Fukushima meltdown in 2011 – however, the nuclear particles from this disaster had yet to collect on the ice sediment.

Speaking of the nuclear tests, Clason said: “We’re talking about weapons testing from the 1950s and 1960s onwards, going right back in the development of the bomb.

“If we take a sediment core you can see a clear spike where Chernobyl was, but you can also see quite a defined spike in around 1963 when there was a period of quite heavy weapons testing.”

While the exact knock-on effects of these blasts remain to be seen in the human food chain, Clason said that by understanding their effects on the geology of the planet, it will help us better date the era when humans first directly had an impact on the planet, known as the Anthropocene.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic