29 Years After Chernobyl, Wildlife Flourishes in The Area

newscientist.com

newscientist.com

When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986, the world had never seen a larger or more dangerous nuclear accident. 116,000 people fled the area, which is located in both Ukraine and Belarus. Another 220,000 people were resettled after that, turning the location into a wasteland. Until now.

Wildlife has been flourishing in Chernobyl, leading many to regard the nuclear accident as much less dangerous and damaging to the environment than normal human activities like forestry, settling, hunting, and agriculture. Should there be people-less areas of the planet so that wildlife populations can flourish?

What’s most interesting about this phenomenon is the relative lack of damage that the radiation has wrought on wildlife populations. Jim Smith, of the University of Portsmouth in the UK, said, “The numbers of animals we see in Chernobyl is similar to the populations in uncontaminated nature reserves.”

He continued:

Whatever negative effects there are from radiation, they are not as large as the negative effects of having people there. We’re not saying there weren’t radiological effects at all, but we can’t see effects on populations as a whole.”

Other experts weighed in on the unexpected findings, stressing that there should be parts of the world where people don’t live, in order to create natural nature reserves without having to “rely on nuclear disasters to make this happen,” says Lee Hannah of Conservation International.

So what does Chernobyl actually look like? A gigantic nature reserve?

Pretty much. Research led by Jim Smith was conducted by in-depth surveys on roe deer, elk, red deer, wolves, and wild boar between 2008 and 2010. These surveys involved examining and counting tracks in snow on an area of land over 20 times the length of habitat studied in any previous study. This made for a much more comprehensive analysis of the area. These surveys were repeated for two to three consecutive years, instead of previous studies which were one-off events.

The researchers concluded that the initial shock of the explosion had the expected effect on the wildlife population, but that now, almost 30 years after the accident, the residual radiation was having little to no impact on the ability of animals to survive. In fact, the wildlife populations in Chernobyl are as large, if not larger, than in similar areas in Ukraine and Belarus. Are humans this destructive?

In fact, the worst effect the radiation had on wildlife occurred during that first year after the accident. Highly toxic materials such as iodine-131 and technetium-99 caused cattle to die after eating contaminated grass, and mice to suffer miscarriages. But as early as 1987, the amount of contamination dropped low enough that these effects were no longer felt.

Mike Wood of the University of Salford in the UK has concluded, without a doubt, that humans are much more damaging to wildlife and the environment. He stated:

“The study results support what many scientists have long suspected, that the impact of radiation on wildlife within the exclusion zone is much less than the impact of humans.”

That’s all well and good, and perhaps there should be people-free areas of earth where wildlife can thrive, but forestry and agriculture are sort of necessities for humans to live.

 

About The Author
Lisa Lo Paro
Lisa is a freelance writer and bibliophile living on the outskirts of New York City. She likes 2 a.m. with a good book, takes cream in her coffee and heavily filters her photos. Check out her blog The Most Happy, her Instagram, and Twitter.