Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface News

Podcast: A Nuclear Legacy Buried in Ice

The radioactive remains of nuclear testing during the Cold War and from nuclear disasters like Chernobyl are still with us and can be found in some of the remotest glaciers on Earth.


Earlier this year, scientists reported that radioactive fallout from nuclear accidents and weapons testing is present in ice sediments on the surface of glaciers in the Arctic, Iceland, the Alps, the Caucasus, British Columbia, and Antarctica.

Not only was the fallout detected far from disaster areas like Chernobyl, Ukraine, but the levels of radioactivity on the glaciers were higher than fallout found in other, nonglaciated environments. The results raised questions about how the sediments—called cryoconite—interact with these contaminants.

The presence of this radioactivity poses a potential problem to humans and animals living near glaciers. As glacial ice melts as a result of climate change, the radioactive fallout could wind up in rivers and streams and potentially make its way up the food chain.

In the latest episode of Third Pod from the Sun, University of Plymouth scientist Caroline Clason details how she and her team discovered the radioactive fallout on the glaciers and what questions they are still investigating, including the potential effect of the radionuclides on ecosystems.

Clason and her team are gathering more samples to complete their understanding of fallout radionuclides in glaciers worldwide and to gain a better understanding of what will happen to the contaminants and the impact they might have on people and animals downstream.

This past summer, members of the British Exploring Society collected samples for the researchers in the Indian Himalayas. They also have new samples from Sweden, Greenland, and Antarctica donated by other glaciologists, and Clason and her graduate student plan to travel to Peru next spring, where they will gather additional samples.

—Nanci Bompey (@nbompey), Public Information Officer, AGU

Citation: Bompey, N. (2019), Podcast: A nuclear legacy buried in ice, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO136599. Published on 18 November 2019.
Text © 2019. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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