Hard to believe that some of you Maps.commers weren’t even born when it happened, but on April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear power plant accident ever occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. Of course, the world had already seen the horrific effects of radiation following the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II, but the radiation released at Chernobyl was actually ten times greater. Some estimates are even higher. In any case, the radiation was so high that a thousand-square-kilometer exclusion zone has blocked any permanent re-habitation of the area. Only intermittent cleanup crews, researchers, and carefully guided tours for sightseers (!) are allowed.
But there are residents of the exclusion zone who never left. Those would be the plants and animals whose ancestors had lived there for thousands of years and didn’t get the memo that the place was now glowing with radiation. Of course many died soon thereafter, and there was something of a dead zone in the immediate area. The pine trees in a forest near the reactor turned red from the radiation before dying, so the area is appropriately known as the Red Forest. Radiation works in strange ways and concentrates in growing things even as it washes off of hard surfaces like roads and sidewalks. It can linger in soil and is far more of a danger in places where it gets loose close to the ground. The blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did a lot of damage, but they exploded high in the air and their radiation didn’t penetrate into the soil the way Chernobyl’s did. Rain soaked the dangerous material even deeper into the ground, and wind distributed the dust.
Amazingly though, in the absence of most humans, the natural world has flourished around Chernobyl. Populations of elk, lynx, beaver, boar and various birds are doing well, as is a herd of 64 Przywalski’s horses that has grown from a group of 21 escapees. Wolves and bears are present and even some endangered birds of prey have been spotted. Vegetation grows in profusion – the Red Forest has turned green with the growth of birch trees. Of course, all of these organisms have elevated levels of radiation, which affects some more than others. Among this irradiated suite of plants and animals lies the remains of much of the Red Forest growth over the last 30 years, including some 30-year-old tree trunks. In a normal forest, such downed wood and leaf litter would be eaten up by insects and microbes in a few years. Through experiments involving specially prepared bags of dead plant material, scientists have determined that microbes and fungi have been markedly diminished by the radiation. With their decompositional work left undone, the detritus of the forest just builds up. This might just be a curiosity if not for the fact that all this material is a growing stockpile of fuel for fires that produce clouds of radioactive smoke, free to blow in the wind. Since inhaling radioactive particles is worse than just touching or even eating them, this could create new Chernobyl nightmares decades after the original disaster.