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IAEA Coordinates an International Project to Protect Glaciers

The IAEA is working on projects that involve the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to gather accurate and detailed images and radiological readings for use in risky areas. (Photo: D.Calma/IAEA)

When glaciers shrink, a huge store of fresh water can be lost, which millions of people may depend upon for farming, fishing, and navigation; it supports vast ecosystems that will be endangered in drier conditions. Many scientists are concerned about this bleak prospect that threatens livelihoods and in some cases community survival. Further fears have been raised that the world's permafrost is "defrosting" and this could result in a large increase of microbial activity and a resulting huge release of global warming greenhouse gases. At the IAEA, international experts met to develop a research strategy to better understand the dynamics of these risks.

In a four-day intensive workshop, the experts discussed plans for a landmark IAEA Technical Cooperation project, led by Chile and the Russian Federation, on the Impact of Climate Change on Polar and Mountainous Regions: From Assessment to Action. The meeting, held from 17 to 20 June 2013 at the IAEA Headquarters in Vienna, included representatives from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and United Nations University (UNU). The proposed four-year interregional project, which would start in 2014, would address the retreat of glaciers, loss of permafrost and reduction in snow cover resulting from global climate change. The quick facts on the project are found here.

The scientific community has recognized that human activities have caused changes in the natural climate cycle, resulting in a grave environmental challenge. The release of carbon dioxide (CO2) by processes such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation is causing average global temperatures to rise, affecting ecosystems. In the polar and high mountain regions of the world temperatures are rising faster than the global average, putting those ecosystems at particular risk. To better understand the risks involved if the stability of these sensitive ecosystems is not maintained, the proposed IAEA Technical Cooperation project aims to improve the understanding of the impact of climate change on the fragile polar and mountainous ecosystems, on a local and global scale, for their improved management and conservation.

International Partners

Representing 20 collaborating countries (Austria, Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Germany, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Peru, Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, Tajikistan, United Kingdom, Uruguay and the USA) as well as international organizations including UNEP, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the UNU, the group worked to prepare a proposal for a four-year interregional project with a budget estimate of €1.67 million.

Through this project, investigations with the support of advanced nuclear techniques will be carried out in existing monitoring stations, building on established data sets to provide a reliable data series on global glaciers. The objective of the project is to create a legacy for monitoring mountain and polar climate change, with the same foresight that Charles David Keeling had when establishing the monitoring of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958 - an initiative that enabled scientists to assess and realize one of the fundamental causes of climate change.

By studying this collected data set on the status of glacier retreat, and its impact on soil and water resources, it will be possible for scientists to advise policy makers on the best course of action to help protect these crucial environments.

Selected Glaciers

Glaciers, permafrost and snow are collectively known as the "cryosphere", and greatly affect weather systems, soil, and water resources around the world. Given the financial limitations on conducting such a large project, the group decided to establish benchmark sites, representing the main climates where glaciers are found.

Sites were selected based on their accessibility, the presence of an already existing station and data set, affected human communities, and the sites' importance to weather and as a resource. Though most sites chosen were glaciers, some were selected to better understand the impact that permafrost loss may have in increasing the rate of global warming.

Investigations under this project will be carried out in seven core selected benchmark sites:

  • Bellingshausen Dome Glacier, King George Island, Antarctica;
  • Aldegonda, Svalbard, Norway;
  • Cordillera Blanca, Peru;
  • Grey Glacier and Olguín Glacier, Torres del Paine, Chile;
  • Mount Elbrus, Russian Federation;
  • Fedchenko Glacier, Tajikistan; and
  • Mount Gongga, China.

In addition, related sites will provide additional and complementary data from:

  • Zackenberg, Greenland, Denmark;
  • Inylchek Glacier, Kyrgyzstan;
  • Castle Creek Glacier, Canada; and
  • Altiplano Sur, Bolivia.

The sites can be viewed in this Google Map.

Future continuation of the project beyond 2018 holds the potential to include much less-studied glacier sites in East Africa.

Uniqueness of the Project

Much is currently being done to understand how climate change is affecting habitats around the world, and with a new focus on analysing how the cryosphere is affected globally, this initiative is a landmark in bringing together a diverse group of countries and institutions in a single coordinated project.

This collaboration is a particular strength as it will ensure consistent and uniformed data collection, as well translating and utilising local resources and historical records that are often inaccessible to "foreign" expeditions studying glaciers. Given the wide range of disciplines involved in the project, a diverse variety of techniques will be integrated to achieve the best possible result. With international support and sharing skills and expertise, the Agency will be facilitating the long-term goal of transferring advanced nuclear techniques and technology for investigating complex environmental processes and phenomena to developing countries, as well as empowering them to make responsible and well informed decisions in policy and management.

With the partnerships established by involving sister organizations like UNEP and UNU, this result-focused project aims to contribute to the International Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Assessment Report 6, add reliable consultation to the decisions made in the UN General Assembly, and help advise on future multilateral environmental agreements.

Through UNEP, the project will be able to provide inputs for the Austrian-led Global Mountain Project, the Governing Council of UNEP, and various regional meetings for Central Asia and the Andes. With much of the world's cryosphere widely distributed and belonging to countries with relatively few ties or commonalities, this project has the potential to create or coordinate a "mountain-bloc" where those nations can coordinate their common interests similarly to the way that small island states work together to enhance and maintain their fragile ecologies.

IAEA Contribution

The IAEA's involvement in the project will be to bring state-of-the-art technology to a field of research that is often limited by its remote locations. With the assistance of the Agency's Soil and Water Management and Crop Nutrition Laboratory (SWMCNL), researchers will be given access to powerful technologies developed for in situ instrumentation and methodology. Backpack-sized radiation detection instruments and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) will bring the latest techniques out of the lab and into the field. The IAEA is working on projects that involve the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to gather accurate and detailed images and radiological readings for use in risky areas, but the goal is to deploy these on the slopes of glaciers to pioneer a new and cheaper way to monitor glacier retreat.

The IAEA plays a crucial role in assisting with the integrated nuclear and isotopic techniques required in this study, including fallout radionuclide studies, compound-specific stable isotope analysis, oxygen-18 and deuterium analysis and carbon-14 dating. The combination of these comprehensive techniques will give an unparalleled perspective on the global state of the cryosphere, which will be harmonized through technical cooperation so that it is available and understandable to policy makers and those whose depend on it.

The project will be the start of a historical scientific initiative that will not only allow us to truly see how humans are changing one of our most delicate ecosystems, but more importantly may be instrumental in devising a way to help those most vulnerable to this now unavoidable thawing.

Quick Facts

Proposed IAEA interregional technical cooperation project to improve the understanding of the impact of climate change on fragile polar and mountainous ecosystems on local and global scale for their better management and conservation.

  • Involving 20 partner countries and international organizations;
  • Conducting investigations at 11 sites around the world from Greenland to Antarctica;
  • Employing state-of-the-art technology, including nuclear techniques and unmanned aerial vehicles; and
  • Possessing a proposed four-year budget of €1.67 million with the potential to influence major international policy-making bodies such as IPCC, UN, UNEP as well as governments with reliable, scientific and consistent data from around the world.
Last update: 27 Jul 2017

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