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How Do Nuclear Techniques Contribute to Measuring and Adapting to Climate Change?

Nuclear Explained

(Image: A. Vargas/IAEA)

Nuclear and isotopic techniques can help us to better understand the world we live in. The data we gather with these techniques can lead to improved, science-based policy making, including in relation to climate change. We can study both land and water systems using various nuclear techniques to evaluate the effects of climate change on the environment.

These techniques and tools are effective in monitoring greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4), understanding environmental changes to oceans, mountains and their ecosystems, and developing ways to adapt to food and water shortages exacerbated by changing weather patterns.

“Countries all over the world are increasingly recognising the value of using nuclear techniques to combat various challenges faced by climate change. They are discovering first-hand how beneficial the technologies promoted by the IAEA are,” said Najat Mokhtar, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications.

Data for identifying, monitoring and managing sources of greenhouse gas emissions are collected using isotopic techniques to understand how they are connected to changes occurring on land, in oceans and throughout the atmosphere. We explain how.

What are isotopes?

The atoms of each chemical element have a characteristic number of protons, neutrons and electrons.

Atoms with the same number of protons but different number of neutrons are isotopes, which share almost the same chemical properties but differ in mass and physical properties. There are stable isotopes – they do not emit radiation – and there are unstable, radioactive isotopes.

Different nuclear techniques are used to measure the isotopes’ amounts and proportions and to trace their origin, history, sources and interactions in the environment. Through these measurements, experts can gain a better understanding of the functioning of various ecosystems.

Learn more about isotopes and their uses here.

Reducing emissions in agriculture

A quarter of greenhouse gas emissions originate in agriculture, including through the release of CH4 and N2O – a gas 300 times more potent than CO2 in terms of leading to global warming – from livestock and chemical fertilisers. Excess fertiliser turning into N2O not only contributes to global warming but also pollutes soil and fresh water. Nuclear techniques are helpful to assess emissions of greenhouse gases in quantity and quality.

Isotopes can help identify the amount of fertiliser that plants take up and, therefore, reduce the amount of fertiliser applied and the volume of N2O released.

See this article on reducing greenhouse gas emissions with nuclear techniques for more details.

Strengthening crop production

Climate change has led to extremely dry conditions in many countries, making it important to understand how drought is affecting the growth of crops under these new conditions and to help find ways to save water. See why water matters.

Isotopes are used in assessing the status and movement of water in soil to understand how strong crops can be produced under changing conditions. They help communities adapt to dry conditions and successfully use cheaper and more effective methods such as drip irrigation.

By speeding up the natural process of genetic change, gamma and X-ray irradiation are used in plant mutation breeding to develop new crop varieties resistant or tolerant to drought, salinity, disease and pests. Seeds and other plant material are treated to induce genetic changes similar to spontaneous mutations, resulting in improved varieties of high yield and crops better adapted to climate changes.

Read more about the use of nuclear techniques for climate-smart agriculture.

Studying oceans

The ocean absorbs one quarter of CO2 released in the atmosphere, allowing 50 times more CO2 to be stored in the ocean than in the atmosphere. Increased amounts of CO2 lead to ocean acidification, which can affect marine organisms that are not used to acidic conditions, impacting entire ecosystems, the food chain and eventually livelihoods of communities dependent on the ocean. When the water becomes too acidic, conditions become destructive to organisms.

Nuclear and isotopic techniques are used to study the ocean and ocean acidification. They help evaluate the ocean’s capacity to store carbon, acidification’s impact on marine organisms, past changes in ocean acidity and impacts on future climate scenarios. Stable and naturally occurring radioisotopes are used to understand the cycling of carbon, including the sources and fates of organic matter.

Armed with this understanding, scientists and policy makers are in a better position to react to the changes and protect life in the ocean.   

Further information on the different techniques used to understand oceans can be found here.

Understanding water reserves

Climate change affects the sources and distribution of rain worldwide, leading to changes in river flow and in the replenishment of groundwater. Isotope hydrology is used to understand how groundwater aquifers are replenished and how vulnerable they may be to climate change. This data helps protect and conserve groundwater systems.

Isotope hydrology examines the isotopic composition of hydrogen and oxygen in water. Because the isotopic makeup of water is unique with respect to the time and location of the rain from where the water originates, this technique can track where the water comes from, so its source can be protected.

Other isotopes are used to date the age of water hosted in different aquifer systems. By evaluating the age of water, scientists can understand how to best manage water supplies to ensure their long-term sustainability.

Find out more on the use of isotope hydrology.

What is the role of the IAEA?

  • The IAEA uses nuclear science and technology to help countries monitor, mitigate and adapt to climate change. It gives guidance on how to preserve and restore the environment, as well as disseminate research and information to aid policy making.
  • The Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture works to develop and further improve nuclear and isotopic techniques to intensify agricultural production and preserve natural resources, while the IAEA builds the capacity of experts around the world in the use of these techniques.
  • The IAEA maintains the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre, advancing capacity building and global communication in ocean acidification science.
  • IAEA’s Environment Laboratories use nuclear and isotopic techniques to better understand the global carbon cycle, study the ocean’s carbon storage capacity and its impacts on future climate scenarios.
  • Partnering with the World Meteorological Organization, the IAEA operates the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation, which contains scientific advice, logistics and technical support in isotope hydrology.

To find out more about nuclear technology and its relation to climate change, read this edition of the IAEA Bulletin.

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