IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency

11/09/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/09/2021 16:08

COP26: In a Warming World How Do Nuclear Sciences Help Protect Water Resources?

Data collected with the help of nuclear techniques will play an increasingly important role in mitigating and reducing the impact of climate change on ever scarcer water resources, concluded an event organized by the IAEA and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the United Kingdom.

The world is facing an escalating freshwater crisis. Climate change has significantly disrupted the water cycle, leading to shifts in precipitation patterns that cause extreme floods and droughts. As a result of rising temperatures, glaciers are melting, ocean and sea levels are rising and water bodies, such as lakes, are evaporating at increasing rates. Experts use isotopic techniques to monitor and study these shifts to better understand how climatic changes impact water availability around the world and to improve existing water management practices to conserve water for generations to come.

"Isotopes are powerful tools applied to assess region-specific climate changes in the past, present and future," said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. "Isotopic techniques are green, affordable and easy to use, and are an ideal method to better understand climate dynamics on a global scale."

When water moves through the different stages of the hydrological cycle, the oxygen and hydrogen isotopes in water molecules get redistributed. Isotopes contain the same number of protons and electrons but can contain varying number of neutrons - this means that their chemical properties are the same but can be distinguished based on molecular weight. The redistribution of isotopes provides water molecules with a unique isotopic composition, which acts as an isotopic fingerprint that informs us on the history of water and the path it followed. This, in turn, provides the scientific fats on which decisions to protect precious water stocks, both above and below the ground, can be based.

"The IAEA-WMO partnership is a testimony that nuclear science and technology support direct climate action," said Elena Manaenkova, WMO's Deputy Secretary General. "Isotope science helps us to understand where water comes from and how we can improve interdisciplinary and international cooperation."

As fresh water around the world is decreasing in quality and quantity, many countries are turning to groundwater as a source of drinking water. In fact, groundwater provides half of all potable water already globally, and climate change is severely affecting the availability of this strategic water resource worldwide.

By studying the age and replenishment rate of groundwater using isotopic fingerprinting, experts can quickly determine how these strategic water supplies can be exhausted and how vulnerable they are to pollution.