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What is Climate Change, and How Does Nuclear Help Measure and Monitor It?

Joanne Liou

Climate change has led to more extreme weather events — from more intense hurricanes and torrential floods to record-breaking temperatures and persisting droughts.  (Photo: S. Kesari/Unsplash)

From melting glaciers and shrinking lakes to destroyed harvests and increased health risks, the impacts of climate change are visible and tangible. A particular location’s climate can be described as its average weather conditions over a significant period of time, and climate change refers to shifts in those weather patterns. Warmer temperatures are changing weather patterns and disrupting nature’s equilibrium and our daily lives. 

Globally, temperatures have increased to about 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and the past seven years have been the warmest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). However, warmer temperatures are just the beginning of the story. 

“Climate change is changing the face of our world,” said Oksana Tarasova, Senior Scientific Officer at the WMO. “Through increasing temperatures, sea level rise, increasing intensity of extreme events, climate change impacts our life and property.”

While natural factors, such as volcanic eruptions and plant decomposition, influence the climate, scientists agree that human activity is the main driver of climate change. Burning fossil fuels — namely coal, oil and gas — and clearing land and forests generate emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, that trap heat and lead to higher temperatures.

The latest WMO report confirmed that greenhouse gas concentrations reached a record high in 2021. The concentration of carbon dioxide measured 415.7 parts per million (ppm) globally, or about 50 per cent above pre-industrial levels.

“Reducing human impact on climate would mean addressing greenhouse gases emissions,” Tarasova said. “The question is: how can we do it in the most efficient way?”

The answer is in the air, and it is revealed by stable isotopes.

We need more measurements and higher quality data to understand our outlook in the years and decades to come. It will take time, but there is a lot of potential for results.
Manfred Gröning, Head of the IAEA Terrestrial Environmental Radiochemistry Laboratory

Stable isotopes

Stable isotopes are non-radioactive forms of atoms. Nuclear techniques are used to measure the amount and proportion of isotopes in matter, and this information — the isotopic signature — can be used to determine their source.

In order to address climate change, scientists are studying air samples and using nuclear techniques to determine the source of the problem. “We need to understand the sources, the sinks (which is anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases) and the isotopic composition, or isotopic signature, of carbon dioxide,” said Manfred Gröning, Head of the IAEA Terrestrial Environmental Radiochemistry Laboratory. “The isotopic composition of carbon dioxide in a sample of air is like an identity card that reveals if it came from a natural or industrial process.”

By identifying the source of emissions, more effective and efficient efforts can be implemented to target the polluters and to reduce GHGs in the atmosphere. “There may be a wildfire in one area, agricultural activities and the deterioration of plants in another area, and then the burning of fossil fuels. All that plays into the complexity of climate change,” Gröning said. “We want to scientifically identify those sources of emissions.”

Reference materials

Climate change has no borders and affects all parts of the planet. A unified approach for global monitoring depends on standardizing isotopic measurements, and this is where the IAEA plays a major role. 

“The IAEA has experts not only in isotopic analysis but also in developing reference materials,” said Federica Camin, an IAEA Reference Materials Specialist. Reference materials are physical standards that are used to calibrate laboratory equipment. Since the 1960s, the IAEA has developed and distributed reference materials for laboratories to assist in quality assurance of results using nuclear analytical techniques.

“When measuring mass, the kilogram is the standard of measurement. When measuring GHGs, reference materials provide that standard so that laboratories are aligned on the same measurement scale, independent of location. That’s what you need for a global monitoring system,” Camin said. The IAEA has developed a carbonate standard in the form of a white powder housed in a small vial. “From this powdered solid carbonate, laboratories can produce carbon dioxide gas to calibrate their analytical instruments,” she said. 

To improve users’ access to CO2 reference materials, the IAEA is in the process of producing gaseous reference materials that will be easier for laboratories to utilize. “About 40 laboratories in the world are spearheading the measurement of stable isotopes in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These labs require standards,” Camin said. “We are developing three new CO2 gas reference materials so that more laboratories can use them, and thus contribute to a high quality dataset of greenhouse gases in the world.” The new reference materials are expected to be distributed in 2024. 

Lab support

The accurate measurement of atmospheric GHG concentrations and of their isotope ratios is extremely complicated, Gröning said. These measurements require sufficient laboratory equipment, protocols and human resources to ensure comparable data. Only a few institutions are qualified to measure isotopes for tracking and tracing GHG emissions to their exact source. In 2021, to help close gaps in global measurements, the IAEA and WMO launched their first joint technical cooperation project to help establish capacity for isotope measurements, particularly of methane emissions, across Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean. 

“In the next decades, more methane will be released into the atmosphere from the melting permafrost,” Gröning warns. Globally, understanding how the release of methane could develop and how methane is transferred, decayed, or destroyed will help to inform scientists of the processes and measures needed to mitigate climate change. The IAEA is in the process of developing methane gas reference materials.

By developing capacities for using isotopic techniques to monitor measurements, more data can be collected and added to the WMO’s Global Atmospheric Watch. The programme is used to monitor GHG trends in the Earth’s atmosphere. “We need more measurements and higher quality data to understand our outlook in the years and decades to come,” Gröning added. “It will take time, but there is a lot of potential for results,” he said.

December, 2022
Vol. 63-4

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