Nuclear techniques to reduce the degradation of the Earth’s ecosystems
In depth

Nuclear techniques to reduce the degradation of the Earth’s ecosystems

An ecosystem is a biological system composed of  a community of live beings and their natural environment. Ecosystems span all of nature, from the mountain tops to the depths of the oceans, wetlands, forests and crops. When stable, it makes it possible to enjoy stable climate, pure air, drinking water and nutritious food. When unstable, it can affect climate change, the acidification of the oceans, the lack of hydric resources and food and the loss of biodiversity, among other things.

The unstability of ecosystems influences climate change and the loss of biodiversity, among other factors.

The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) helps countries in the use of nuclear and isotopic techniques to understand, strenghten and restore ecosystems.

“The IAEA facilitates development and transfer of state-of-the-art techniques to detect and measure subtle environmental changes that affect ecosystems and the services they provide”, says Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General. “The cosmic ray neutron sensor technology, for example, helps understand and model important soil water dynamics in vulnerable ecosystems, such as mountains,” he adds.

The IAEA facilitates development and transfer of state-of-the-art techniques to detect and measure subtle environmental changes that affect ecosystems

IAEA’s research, in cooperation with other scientific organizations, provides mitigation strategies and tools related to the management of natural resources and the conservation of ecosystems, especially around mountains, the ground and the oceans.

Evaluation and mitigation of the effects of climate change on mountains

Mountains, one of the world’s main water reserves, are some of the ecosystems most damaged by climate change. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), half of the people on the planet depends on mountain water in one form or another to drink, obtain energy and produce food.

IAEA and FAO have been co-operating for years to study the effects of climate change on hydric resources and mountain soils. The results of these studies show that water supply for human consumption, hydroelectric energy, irrigation and industry depend on the conditions of the cryosphere (glaciers, permafrost and snow), and on patterns for sediment transportation (sediment dynamics).

Taking sediment cores from lake Paron (Huaraz, Peru, 2016) to better understand sediment redistribution in the highlands of the Peruvian Andes due to glacier retreat. (Photo: Autoridad Nacional del Agua, Peru)
Taking sediment cores from lake Paron (Huaraz, Peru, 2016) to better understand sediment redistribution in the highlands of the Peruvian Andes due to glacier retreat. (Photo: Autoridad Nacional del Agua, Peru)

The isotopic analysis of samples from different parts of the world makes it possible to preview future changes, so that local authorities can create the right adaptation strategies based on scientific  data.

The isotopic analysis of samples from different parts of the world makes it possible to preview future changes

Strenghtening the quality of the soil and biodiversity

The growing food demand has negative consequences on agricultural ecosystems, since intensive agricultural practices can deplete natural resources. With the IAEA’s technical cooperation program, farmers learn to optimize the use of fertilizers, grow their crops under drought conditions and fight plagues with no chemical products or reducing their use. The application of irradiation to create new crop varieties with a higher resistence to climate change and diseases also contributes to global food safety.

Philippe Nikiema, a researcher at Burkina Faso's Institute for the Environment and Agricultural Research explains his results on the new sorghum lines resistant to Striga to fellow colleagues at the Joint FAO/IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria. (Photo: A. Ghanim/IAEA)
Philippe Nikiema, a researcher at Burkina Faso's Institute for the Environment and Agricultural Research explains his results on the new sorghum lines resistant to Striga to fellow colleagues at the Joint FAO/IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria. (Photo: A. Ghanim/IAEA)

“Analyses of stable isotopes offer proven and powerful technologies to help crucial wildlife conservation and protection,” says Leonard Wasseaar, Head of the IAEA’s Isotope Hydrology Laboratory. “Tracking wildlife migration can help decision makers better protect certain areas where animals breed.” In Mexico, for example, illegal logging affects the populations of monarch butterflies, whose migration pathways have been traced with isotopic techniques, and with the  Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation.

The analysis of stable isotopes is a consolidated technology with proven efficacy for the conservation and protection of wild animals

Fighting ocean pollution and acidification

Oceans and seas, which cover 70% of the Earth’s surface, generate most of the oxygen we breathe. Reducing ocean acidification and pollution is fundamental to restore ecosystems.

IAEA produces bibliographical material and helps global laboratories to generate reliable data. This support contributes to the fight against pollution from plastics and harmful algal blooms, among other problems presented in marine ecosystems. In South America there are studies on microplastic pollution in the East Pacific Ocean and sediments in the Caribbean Sea with isotopic techniques.

While protecting from storms and nourishing ground fish, the coastal ecosystems are Earth’s most effective systems to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. (Photo: P. Swarzenski/IAEA)
While protecting from storms and nourishing ground fish, the coastal ecosystems are Earth’s most effective systems to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. (Photo: P. Swarzenski/IAEA)

In South America there are studies on microplastic pollution in the East Pacific Ocean and sediments in the Caribbean Sea with isotopic techniques

Coastal ecosystems absorb the carbon that reaches the sea. Their maintenance and restoration is fundamental to reduce ocean acidification. IAEA scientists participate in global research on the management of coastal ecosystems, particularly the restoration of mangroves and seagrass.

Along with the cooperation of participating countries, this research work on the application of nuclear techniques to the maintenance of Earth’s different ecosystems contributes to the goals set by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Source: IAEA