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Melting Glaciers Are Releasing Historical Nuclear Contamination

VIENNA, Austria

As if frozen, pox-ridden corpses, dormant (and dead) viruses and greenhouse gases weren't enough, glacier melt and permafrost retreat caused by climate change are now revealing elevated levels of radioactive atoms that result from historical nuclear accidents and weapons tests.

Nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are known to have had an immediate impact on their surrounding environments and the people living within them. But emerging research is suggesting the legacy of these events and international weapons testing could be felt for much longer as radioactive particles are being stored within glaciers.

Scientists of the European Geoscientists Union (EGU) presented new glacier research April 10 that investigates the effect of nuclear fallout. In commenting on the study researcher Caroline Clason of the University of Plymouth said: "We wanted to show this is a global issue and not just localized near sources of nuclear contamination."

Although the detected contamination is not likely to pose a threat to the immediate environment, the levels are much higher than is normally safe for human consumption. Given the effects of climate change and global warming that have led to an acceleration in glacier melt, the contamination that has been identified could leach into the food chain as the meltwater enters into rivers and lakes where grazing animals eat and drink.

Looking specifically for nuclear contamination, the researchers examined cryoconite which is a layer of dark sediment on the surface of many glaciers. Cryoconite is both rock minerals and organic material composed of black carbon made up from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, fungus or plant matter and other microbes. The cryoconite can absorb airborne contaminants.

The group sampled 17 glaciers ranging from the Alps to Antarctica, Sweden to British Columbia and discovered very high levels that are not ordinarily seen outside of nuclear blast areas.

“Americium-241, a radioactive isotope that's produced as plutonium decays, was found at many of the glacier sites in quantities that could be hazardous to human health if ingested, the team found. Meanwhile, cesium-137, an isotope produced during nuclear explosions, was found at all 17 sites in quantities tens to hundreds of times greater than expected background levels. These nuclear byproducts were most likely deposited by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion of 1986, the researchers said".

"People knew that [cesium-137] was in the environment after Chernobyl, but they don't know that glaciers are still releasing this continually, 30 years later," Clason said at EGU.

The study makes the connection between nuclear disasters and animal wildlife: “wild deer, boar and bears in Europe and Asia all exhibited elevated levels of radioactive cesium following the Chernobyl disaster. And as recently as 2016, tens of thousands of reindeer were deemed unfit to eat in Sweden due to similar concerns about cesium radiation”.