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IAEA Helps Countries Halt Ecosystems Degradation

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(Photo: Nicolas Blain)

This year’s World Environment Day kicks off the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030) with the aim to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems. The IAEA supports countries in the use of nuclear and isotopic techniques to better understand, strengthen and restore ecosystems from mountaintops to ocean depths, including wetlands, forests and farmland.

A stable climate, breathable air, fresh water and quality food are among what we owe ecosystems – which comprise all living organisms and the interactions among them, and with their surroundings in a given location.

“The IAEA facilitates development and transfer of state-of-the-art techniques to detect and measure subtle environmental changes that affect ecosystems and the services they provide,” said Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General. “The cosmic ray neutron sensor technology, for example, helps understand and model important soil water dynamics in vulnerable ecosystems, such as mountains. It is an important tool for the decision makers in developing adaptation strategies to reach the objectives of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.”

Using nuclear and isotopic techniques, the IAEA laboratories coordinate research to understand climate change, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, and their impact on terrestrial and marine ecosystems. They also propose related mitigation strategies and tools for the management of natural resources and for ecosystem conservation. Here is how.

Assessing and mitigating the impact of climate change in mountains

Mountains are the world’s water towers. One of every two people on the planet quenches his thirst with water that originates in mountains. At the same time, 1.9 billion people worldwide are at risk from mountain water shortages, a recent study by Nature shows.

Mountains are among the regions most impacted by climate change, and the IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has since 2014 been tracking this impact on soil and water resources with the use of isotopic and nuclear techniques. Scientists found out how the cryosphere – i.e. glaciers, permafrost and snow – and sediment dynamics could affect ecosystem functioning and impact the water supply used for human consumption, hydropower, irrigation and industry.

Taking sediment cores from lake Paron (Huaraz, Peru, 2016) to better understand sediment redistribution in the highlands of the Peruvian Andes due to glacier retreat. (Photo: Autoridad Nacional del Agua, Peru)

Results obtained from samples from all over the world enable the development of models on what changes are expected in the future. They aim to support decision makers in developing the right adaptation strategies based on scientific evidence.

Strengthening soil quality and biodiversity on land

Growing demand for food is putting pressure on farmland ecosystems via intensive agriculture practices that damage soil, water resources and biodiversity. The IAEA and FAO support countries in developing sustainable, climate-smart agriculture practices, which strengthen soil, plant and animal biodiversity.

Through the IAEA technical cooperation programme, farmers learn how to maximize the use of fertilizer, grow food under water-scarce conditions and combat pests and invasive species with no or fewer chemicals – as recommended by the UNEP Playbook on ecosystems restoration. The use of irradiation for the development of new crop varieties with higher resistance to climatic changes and diseases also contributes to global food security.

Philippe Nikiema, a researcher at Burkina Faso's Institute for the Environment and Agricultural Research explains his results on the new sorghum lines resistant to Striga to fellow colleagues at the Joint FAO/IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria. (Photo: A. Ghanim/IAEA)

To halt illegal logging and subsequent forest ecosystem degradation, the IAEA supports countries with training and reference materials to identify the origins of potentially illegally-logged wood products seized by authorities.

“Analyses of stable isotopes offer proven and powerful technologies to help crucial wildlife conservation and protection,” said Leonard Wassenaar, Head of the IAEA’s Isotope Hydrology Laboratory. “Tracking wildlife migration, for example, can help decision makers better protect certain areas where animals breed.” In Mexico, illegal logging affects the populations of monarch butterflies, whose migration pathways have been revealed with the help of the IAEA Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation, initiated sixty years ago by the IAEA and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Addressing ocean pollution and acidification

Oceans and seas – which cover 70 per cent of the Earth – regulate our climate and generate most of the oxygen we breathe. Reducing ocean pollution and acidification is key for ecosystem restoration.

The IAEA assists countries in the accurate monitoring of coastal and marine pollution. It produces certified reference materials and helps laboratories worldwide generate reliable data thanks to training, interlaboratory comparisons and proficiency tests. This support contributes to addressing plastic pollution and harmful algal blooms, among other issues faced by marine ecosystems.

While protecting from storms and nourishing ground fish, the coastal ecosystems are Earth’s most effective systems to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. (Photo: P. Swarzenski/IAEA)

Maintaining and restoring coastal ecosystems – rich in mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrasses – is vital to help reduce ocean acidification, as they capture carbon entering oceans and therefore control acidity. IAEA scientists participate in global research related to coastal ecosystems management and particularly restoration of mangroves and seagrass.

Assisting countries with state-of-the-art techniques to better understand climate change and address its effects, ensure global food security, and support wildlife on land and below water makes the IAEA an important contributor to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

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