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World Oceans Day: A Look into Colombia's Seas with Nuclear Technology

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Scientists at INVEMAR, Colombia’s Marine and Coastal Research Institute. To the left, a sample of whale bones. (Photo: L. Gil/IAEA)

Oceans are life. They contain half of the oxygen we breathe and much of the protein that we consume. Yet, contaminants, including from human activity, continue to threaten our oceans. Increased amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) are changing seawater chemistry, and many pollutants are not only harming ocean life, but are also making their way through the food chain onto our dinner table.

With just a single drop of ocean water, scientists can use nuclear technology and reveal processes that help us better understand our marine environment. Throughout the world, scientists are turning to the IAEA for support in the use of nuclear-derived techniques to study the ocean and better prepare to defend it.

To mark World Oceans Day, we take a look at how the IAEA has been supporting Colombia — a country whose territory is close to 50% ocean — in this challenge.

Since collaboration started in 2007, staff from Colombia’s Marine and Coastal Research Institute INVEMAR have received equipment and learned new expertise in nuclear-derived techniques that they are now using to study phenomena affecting Colombia’s waters, such as ocean acidification, microplastics and other types of pollution.

“Much of Colombia’s territory of one million kmis surrounded by the sea,” said Francisco Arias, Director General of INVEMAR. “Nuclear techniques offer a huge range of opportunities to study our sea, from identifying heavy metals present in it to measuring the increasing acidity of the ocean and studying how it will affect certain organisms.”

A scientist analysing water samples at INVEMAR, Santa Marta, Colombia. (Photo: L. Gil/IAEA)

Ocean acidification is an alteration of the chemical composition of seawater due to the accelerated increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. This phenomenon is gradually threatening organisms such as corals and molluscs. Colombia, which is lucky to attract coastal tourism with its beaches and rich marine life, could suffer a blow through the loss of corals. Similarly, weaker shells in molluscs can affect the country’s fishing industry. Researchers are looking into these potential future effects to help policymakers take appropriate measures in the face of ocean acidification.

INVEMAR is also looking into the causes and effects of coastal and marine pollution. Due to man-made pollution, water quality is deteriorating, affecting the living organisms in it, human health and, once again, Colombia’s economy. Recently, studies by INVEMAR and the IAEA Environment Laboratories using nuclear-derived techniques have helped determine the exact quantity of mercury deposited since the 1970s in the sediments of the Cartagena Bay in the Colombian Caribbean. The scientists’ results are helping authorities conduct risk assessments and take the necessary precautionary measures.

Out of all pollutants, microplastics are one of the most worrisome, complex and difficult to handle. This is so because of their size; these plastic particles that reach the oceans are smaller than five millimetres and are therefore difficult to track. They originate from materials manufactured for industrial and domestic use, such as Velcro or clothes detergent. Researchers of INVEMAR have attended courses organized under the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme on how to track these pollutants and how to study their effect on marine organisms.

Sharing nuclear science

INVEMAR’s spirit, Director General Arias explains, is to share the capabilities they are gaining through IAEA projects with other institutes in the country. “The most valuable part in this job, we believe, is to share our methods, our results and our analyses with the wider scientific community.”

Last month in Santa Marta, for example, INVEMAR hosted a workshop with more than 20 scientists and communicators from Latin America and the Caribbean to turn their scientific results on the marine environment, gathered using nuclear-derived techniques, into communication products for policymakers. For more information on this workshop, read this story.

Within Colombia, too, INVEMAR has an open-door policy that is allowing other entities in the country to use the equipment and nuclear-derived techniques even outside the world of oceans. For example, some of the equipment and techniques hosted in INVEMAR are being used to support the sustainable management of water resources and hydroelectric energy in the country by studying sedimentation rates in rivers and coastal areas.

“The idea is to use INVEMAR as a reference point, or collaborating centre, for other institutions in Colombia,” said Juan Pablo Parra, from the Ministry of Mines and Energy who serves as focal point to the IAEA. “So that instead of having all the techniques atomized in one single institution, we share the capacity nationally.”

INVEMAR holds a collection of preserved marine and coastal organisms from Colombia. (Photo: L. Gil/IAEA)

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