Irradiated glaciers from the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters now threaten the environment as they could release their stored radiation particles at any moment.
In a study presented at the European Geosciences Union's General Assembly, researchers discussed how ice and snow in glaciated areas can capture fallout from nuclear accidents and store them for long periods of time.
However, these glaciers are starting to melt at a rapid pace as a result of climate change. They are now at risk of releasing their contaminants into the environment, which could poison humans and wildlife alike.
Nuclear Fallout In Glaciers
Dr. Caroline Clason, an expert on physical geography from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, led an international team of researchers in examining the effects of nuclear radiation on glaciers.
They focused their work on particles known as fallout radionuclides, which are the byproducts of nuclear weapons testings and accidents. These contaminants are often stored in ice surface sediments called cryoconite.
Clason and her colleagues traveled to different sites around the world, such as Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Antarctica. The FRNs detected in these environments have orders of magnitude that are higher than those found in non-glaciated areas.
The team's discovery underscores the role of glaciers, particularly the interaction between cryoconite and meltwater, in collecting contaminants in the atmosphere from various human activities.
The researchers also found that FRN buildup is not restricted to areas directly affected by nuclear activity such as in Chernobyl and Fukushima. This highlights the impacts of nuclear fallout and other atmospheric pollutants on the entire planet.
Clason said previous studies on nuclear accidents mainly focused on their impacts on humans and ecosystems in non-glaciated areas. However, evidence suggest that cryoconite on glaciers are more adept at collecting and storing dangerous levels of FRNs.
While high concentrations of FRNs have already been detected in the past, not much is known about how they could potentially impact the environment yet. This is something that Clason and her colleagues have been trying to explore in their research.
"Our collaborative work is beginning to address this because it is clearly important for the pro-glacial environment and downstream communities to understand any unseen threats they might face in the future," Clason said.
Effects Of Radiation Exposure
The high levels of radiation produced after a nuclear disaster can cause long-lasting effects on human health. The longer the body is exposed to the energy, the more cells and tissues are damaged.
One of the most visible health effects of radiation is hair loss (Alopecia), which often occurs when people are exposed to 200 rems or higher.
The brain is also susceptible to damaging from nuclear exposure. Radiation with 5,000 rems or higher can destroy small blood vessels and nerve cells, resulting in seizures and even immediate death in extreme cases.
High amounts of radioactive iodine can seriously damage the thyroid and other cells related to the gland. However, when used properly and in controlled doses, radioiodine can help treat thyroid cancer.
People exposed to 100 rems of radiation may experience a lowering of their lymphocyte cell counts. This leaves them more vulnerable to various infections.
Data from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombing suggest that symptoms of this form of radiation sickness can last up to 10 years, and can increase the risk of developing lymphoma and leukemia.