From: Rachel Nuwer/Smithsonian, Ecologist, More from this Affiliate
Published March 24, 2014 09:26 AM

Chernobyl: thirty years hence...

It's not just people, animals and trees that suffer from radiation at Chernobyl, writes Rachel Nuwer, but also decomposer fungi and microbes. And with the buildup of dead wood comes the risk of catastrophic fire - which could spread radiation far and wide. Nearly 30 years have passed since the Chernobyl plant exploded and caused an unprecedented nuclear disaster. The effects of that catastrophe, however, are still felt today.


Although no people live in the extensive exclusion zones around the epicenter, animals, trees and other plants still show signs of radiation poisoning.

Birds around Chernobyl have significantly smaller brains than those living in non-radiation poisoned areas. Trees grow slower and fewer spiders and insects, including bees, butterflies and grasshoppers, live there.

Additionally, game animals such as wild boar caught outside of the exclusion zone, including some bagged as far away as Germany, continue to show abnormal and dangerous levels of radiation.

The ecosystem damage goes deep

However, there are even more fundamental issues going on in the environment. According to a new study published in Oecologia, decomposers - organisms such as microbes, fungi and some types of insects that drive the process of decay - have also suffered from the contamination.

These creatures are responsible for an essential component of any ecosystem: recycling organic matter back into the soil. Issues with such a basic-level process, the authors of the study think, could have compounding effects for the entire ecosystem.

The team decided to investigate this question in part because of a peculiar field observation: "We have conducted research in Chernobyl since 1991 and have noticed a significant accumulation of litter over time."

Chernobyl - where even the trees are petrified

Moreover, trees in the infamous Red Forest - an area where all of the pine trees turned a reddish color and then died shortly after the accident - did not seem to be decaying, even 15 to 20 years after the meltdown.

"Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them", says Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and lead author of the study.

"It was striking, given that in the forests where I live, a fallen tree is mostly sawdust after a decade of lying on the ground." 

Wondering whether that seeming increase in dead leaves on the forest floor and those petrified-looking pine trees were indicative of something larger, Mousseau and his colleagues decided to run some field tests.

Read more at ENN affiliate, The Ecologist.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, 2012 image via Shutterstock.

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