Scientist looks at nuclear fallout freed by melting glaciers

By Andru McCracken


A photo of Dr. Philip Owens camp shows they are about one kilometre from the toe of the glacier, in hindsight, Owen said it was a good and safe place to camp because they filtered the water for solids. /SUBMITTED

Nuclear fallout from above-ground atom bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s have been stored in glaciers and rapid glacier melt means the ground at the snout of the glaciers is becoming contaminated.

This is the result of new research from the University of Northern British Columbia at the Castle Creek Glacier near McBride by Dr. Phil Owens, a research chair in Landscape Ecology for Forest Renewal BC.

This is the first study of its kind on a North American glacier.

Radioactive particles from those early bombs settled onto this area’s mountains after they were widely dispersed in the stratosphere. The levels, however, surprised him.

“It’s pretty extreme; way more than we would expect to find in soils,” he said. “The only place in the world we have seen higher is places like Chernobyl or Fukushima (both sites of nuclear disasters).”

Location of Castle Creek Glacier, British Columbia. Map shows the location of river sediment sampling sites.

Owens documented his findings in “Extreme Levels of fallout radionuclides and other contaminants in glacial sediment and implications for downstream aquatic ecosystems.”

His paper was published in late August in the scientific journal Nature.

The gist of the research is that the contaminants are not having an impact on aquatic systems in the watershed.

“Although the sediments at the snout of the glacier are getting really contaminated, when you move away from the glacier in the river, the concentrations were not nearly as high,” he said. “There is no reason to panic, but it is a warning.”

According to Owens, it isn’t dangerous to walk around the glacier surface.

“But you wouldn’t want to ingest [the sediments.]”

Owens said while levels are high at the snout, it’s a very small area affected -10s of metres squared, where Cherynobyl, for example, is contaminated for 100s of square kilometres.

“It’s 34 km from McBride; that’s a long distance, by then it will have really diluted,” he said. “It’s not a concern for human health,” he said.

Still drinking glacier water

Dr. Philip Owens collects river sediment from the stream draining out of the Castle Creek Glacier about 34 km from McBride. /SUBMITTED

During his research on the glacier, Owens camped about 1 kilometre below the glacier and drank glacial meltwater. He said they filtered the water to remove solids and that is a good approach because the Fallout Radionuclides bind with sediments and are not dissolved in water.

“Water coming from a glacier is not pure water, it looks great, but don’t assume it’s pure fresh water.”

Owens said he would camp in the same location and drink the same filtered water, even though he now knows the contamination  levels are high.

Owens said other countries have populations living much closure to the toe of the glacier and the impact of this concentrations could be much worse.

“There is a group of us trying to assess how much of a global problem this may be.”

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