Landscape-scale controls on the spatial distribution of caesium 137: A study based on an airborne geophysical survey across Northern Ireland



The spatial distribution of 137Cs across the landscape and the processes controlling its redistribution are of interest because (i) 137Cs has been widely used to quantify the movement of soil and sediments and (ii) substantial fallout of 137Cs after the Chernobyl accident has led to contamination of foodstuffs in some places. A high-resolution airborne geophysical radiometric survey of Northern Ireland has provided an opportunity to study the distribution and possible redistribution of 137Cs.

The 137Cs activity (recorded at 1·2 million points) is distributed in a series of bands oriented approximately 160° and 115° clockwise from north. Geostatistical analysis of the data shows a strong, short-range structure (correlation ranges between 0·6 and 8 km) in 137Cs activity across the vast majority of the region; the spatial distribution shows association with a published, coarse-scale depositional pattern of 137Cs from Chernobyl. Two indices of land form derived from a digital elevation model, namely compound topographic index and the length–slope factor of the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation, account for only 3% of the variance in 137Cs activity. In contrast, soil type and land cover in combination (including their interaction) account for 20% of the variance. In areas that received moderate fallout from Chernobyl, soil type alone accounts for a substantial proportion of the spatially correlated 137Cs activity. We attribute this to each soil type having a fairly uniform radiocaesium interception potential that differs from those of other soil types and that this potential controls the vertical migration of 137Cs. Over the granitic Mourne Mountains there is a strong spatial cross-correlation between 137Cs activity and airborne estimates of soil potassium, suggesting that the latter provides a measure of the soil's radiocaesium interception potential; this is probably dominated by the quantity of the mineral illite. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. and British Geological Survey