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The world's ice is rapidly disappearing, but not without a trace. Ancient artifacts, frozen corpses, long-dead viruses and loads of trapped greenhouse gases are the parting gifts left behind as Earth's melting glaciers and permafrost retreat. And now, thanks to ongoing global research, a new (and concerning) item can be added to that list: nuclear fallout.
In a recent survey of glaciers around the world, an international team of scientists discovered elevated levels of fallout radionuclides — radioactive atoms that result from nuclear accidents and weapons tests — in every single glacier studied.
News - Contaminants - Threat - Environment - Clason
The good news is these nuclear contaminants likely pose no immediate threat to the environment, said Clason, who presented the team's findings at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) conference on Wednesday (April 10). However, Clason told Live Science, the contaminants at most sites were found in significantly higher levels than what is considered safe for human ingestion. These contaminants could enter the food chain as glaciers continue to melt into rivers, lakes and seas due to climate change.
For their new research, Clason and her colleagues looked for nuclear contaminants in cryoconite, a layer of dark sediment found on the surface of many glaciers around the world.
Sediments - Cryoconite - Material - Rock - Minerals
Unlike run-of-the-mill sediments, cryoconite is composed of both inorganic material (like rock minerals) and organic material. The organic parts can include black carbon, or the leftovers from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels; fungus; plant matter; and microbes. This makes cryoconite a very efficient "sponge" for airborne contaminants that fall onto glaciers with snow and rain, Clason said. Even more contaminants accumulate in cryoconite as the climate warms and dirty meltwater sweeps across dying glaciers.
The radioactive cryoconite samples came from 17 glaciers spanning locations from Antarctica to the Alps and British Columbia to Arctic Sweden. And these samples didn't just have minor amounts of contamination.
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