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A Changing World

IAEA Project Investigates Climate Change Impact on Land-Water-Ecosystem Quality in Polar and Mountainous Regions

Scientist examines soil samples in Antarctica

Scientists examine organic matter in soil from King George Island, Antarctica. They are part of the IAEA's interregional project "Assessing the Impact of Climate Change and its Effects on Soil and Water Resources in Polar and Mountainous Regions."  (Photo: G. Dercon/IAEA)

Nuclear techniques are now being used in polar and mountainous regions to study climate change and its impact on land-water-ecosystem quality in order to better conserve and manage these resources.

The rapidly changing climate in the Arctic, in mountains and the western part of Antarctica has alarmed communities, environmentalists, scientists and policy-makers. Many fear that soils will become unstable, and that water in soil will be less available for mountain communities. There is also concern that greenhouse gases locked away in the soils of these regions for millennia will now find their way into the atmosphere, causing further changes to the Earth’s climate. The IAEA has embarked upon a four-year technical cooperation project involving 23 countries and six international organizations to assess whether or not these climate change concerns are justified, and to identify what can be done if they are.  Although the project will be undertaken in polar and mountainous regions, the results, especially those relating to permafrost and carbon in the atmosphere, have global implications.

Eleven scientists from various disciplines have spent four weeks (19 January to 16 February 2015) in Patagonia, Chile and King George Island, Antarctica, taking samples and running tests. Similar sampling procedures, using isotopic techniques as well as methods from other scientific disciplines, will eventually be repeated in 11 other mountainous and polar sites around the globe. 

This interregional project on "Assessing the Impact of Climate Change and its Effects on Soil and Water Resources in Polar and Mountainous Regions", carried out by the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation Programme, coordinated and supported technically by the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, began in 2014 and will continue until 2017.

Gerd Dercon, lead researcher and Head of the IAEA Soil and Water Management and Crop Nutrition Laboratory of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, noted that the impact of climate change in mountain and polar regions is "not always well understood. And that's why this project is so important. But also, this project is very significant in the context of looking at what happens when the cryosphere - that's snow cover, ice sheets, glaciers and permafrost - changes, and what happens with greenhouse gas emission, soil water availability, sediment and sedimentary distribution, slope stability, and coastal erosion."

Melting Permafrost and Carbon in the Atmosphere

Permafrost is ground - including soil and rocks - which has been frozen for at least two consecutive years. The state of permafrost affects soil, water and ecosystem quality, biomass production, and even the stability of buildings and other infrastructure with foundations in the permafrost. But chiefly with regard to this project, permafrost could hold the key to understanding future global climate.

"Permafrost is thawing; especially in the Arctic. Therefore microorganisms can now degrade the organic matter in the soil. This can create the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane that could be released into, and further heat, the atmosphere," said Andreas Richter, a member of the nine-person team in Antarctica, and a microbiologist from the University of Vienna in Austria.

"The amount of carbon that is stored in permafrost soils worldwide - in mountain systems, but also in the Arctic and Antarctic - is about twice as much carbon as we now have in the atmosphere," said Richter.

Scientists from a wide range of disciplines such as paleoclimatology, microbiology, organic geochemistry, ecology, nuclear physics, geomorphology and glaciology, are involved in this first phase of the four-year project. This means that a variety of analytical methods from these fields are being used to gather data and draw conclusions about the effects that the changing climate will have on carbon in the atmosphere, an issue that affects current and future generations.

"We are not talking about something that is far away, locked in the Antarctic or Arctic soil. But this is something that will affect everyone," said Richter while on King George Island.

Working Together

"I think that the success of this project will trigger collaboration between countries from all continents and between scientific disciplines, helping us to better study and understand climate change in mountains and polar regions," says Bulat Mavlyudov, coordinator of the interregional project, and a glaciologist from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geography. "The results will be put to good use in formulating recommendations for climate change adaptation policy being looked at by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

Stephanie Kusch, an organic geochemist from the University of Cologne, said the project is also unique because "Accessing sedimentary or soil archives in remote locations is hard work and a logistic effort, so it is not easy to obtain samples. We have to go into the field and get them ourselves. This project has given us the opportunity to do that for Patagonia and King George Island."

Sample Collection

The interregional project commenced in 2014 with meetings held to draw up the technical and scientific methodology for how the data are to be collected. For the next year and a half, researchers from around the globe will be using isotopic and nuclear techniques, as well as geochemical and biological analytical methods from other scientific disciplines to predict and track soil water in order to monitor the movement of soil and sediment, to assess what will happen in the atmosphere as permafrost melts, and examine the effect this melting will have on fragile land-water-ecosystems in mountainous and polar regions.

Heitor Evangelista da Silva, a paleo-climatologist from the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, underscored the historical component of the project, which will analyse sediment cores to understand climate from as far back as 2000 years ago.

"If we understand the past, we can also understand the future," said Evangelista.

Linking Climate Change, Landscape and Soil Organic Carbon Dynamics with Isotopic and Nuclear Techniques

Gaining insight into past climate change events and how the environment responded to those changes is an excellent way of understanding the current and future changes in climate and to develop appropriate responses.

"Isotope and nuclear techniques allow us to read the history of the earth, preserved in nature's own archives," said Dercon.

These archives are the ice in glaciers or polar ice caps. They are the soil and sediments in lakes and oceans or organic matter in the earth or in trees. Isotopes are different forms of a single element and vary by the number of neutrons that they have.

By measuring isotope composition and ratios in the different sediment and ice layers it is possible to reconstruct climate history and greenhouse gas concentrations over extremely long time periods. The same techniques can be applied to soil to extract information about how climate change in polar and mountain regions effect the movement and quality of soil, and the production of greenhouse gases.


While in Chile and Antarctica, scientists evaluated the methods for assessing climate change's impact on cryosphere and land-water-ecosystem quality. If these methods produce accurate results in extreme weather conditions like King George Island and Patagonia, then they can be used in the other eleven benchmark sites when sampling begins later this year.

To ensure that all the researchers at the other benchmark sites are able to use these validated testing methods, in July, Dercon and his team will conduct a training course in Svalbard, Norway, for approximately 20 fellows. Later, experts will also be sent to the various locations to provide follow-up instruction as needed. This approach will ensure cross-comparability of the sampling and results analysis, an important element in this multi-country project.

"And once we have taught everybody how to do it in their benchmark sites, then we will start to collect samples," said Dercon. Sample collection will continue until July 2016.

All these soil samples will be analysed at different laboratories from across the world, for instance Sweden where scientists will look at the impact of temperature increase on the production of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. "Then we will compare how this soil responds to an increase in temperature, which is of course linked to climate change. And then we can know what will happen with the carbon stored in the soil."

"If this phase of the project goes well, we will have another phase where we will then look at how we can adapt to climate change. Because assessing the impact is one thing, but the [bigger] question is how we can use this information to help communities in mountain regions adapt," said Dercon. 


The project's main objective is to improve the understanding of the impact of climate change on fragile polar and mountainous ecosystems for their better management and conservation. Researchers will seek to answer the following questions in order to meet this broad goal:

  • What is the impact of climate change on soil and soil organic carbon in polar and mountainous regions?
  • What is the impact of climate change on (i) soil water availability and (ii) soil-sediment redistribution processes in polar & mountainous regions?
  • How is the cryosphere affected by long-term and current climate change?

The missions to Chile and Antarctica were organized by the IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation with extrabudgetary support from the United States of America and with the collaboration of the Universidad de Magallanes, the Universidad Austral de Chile, the Russian Bellingshausen Research Station, the Uruguayan Artigas Research Station, and the Brazilian Air Force.

Benchmark Sites

  1. King George Island, Antarctica
  2. Aldegonda, Svalbard, Norway
  3. Cordillera Blanca, Peru
  4. Hohe Tauern, Austria
  5. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
  6. Torres del Paine, Chile
  7. Elbrus, Russian Federation
  8. Vakhsh, Tajikistan;
  9. Hengduan Mountain, China
  10. Zackenberg, Greenland, Denmark
  11. Inylchek, Kyrgyzstan
  12. Castle Creek, Canada
  13. Intersalar, Bolivia
Permafrost is thawing; especially in the Arctic. Therefore microorganisms can now degrade the organic matter in the soil. This can create the greenhouse gases CO<sub>2</sub> and methane that could be released into, and further heat, the atmosphere.
Andreas Richter, University of Vienna

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