Chernobyl Catastrophe Still Felt 30 Years Later

Even though the infamous nuclear disaster at the Ukrainian Chernobyl plant happened almost 30 years ago, life around this epicenter is still affected by the explosion.

Wildlife, for example, is clearly still influenced by this catastrophe. Fewer bees, spiders, butterflies and grasshoppers now populate this area. The birds that do live here have smaller brains than observed prior to the accident. In addition, according to a study published in Oecologia, the area’s decomposers including microbes, fungi, and insects are not functioning properly, likely due to radiation contamination.

“In the forests where I live, a fallen tree is mostly sawdust after a decade of lying on the ground,” said Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. However, in the Red Forest near Chernobyl, where radiation caused trees to turn red, trees dead for 15-20 years have not yet decayed. “Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them,” Mousseau added.

This lack of decay intrigued Mousseau. He wondered what role radiation played in this phenomena. He and some of his colleagues began to conduct a field test to find answers. They measured the leaf litter from areas surrounding the explosion. Results from this field test indicate that leaf litter is three times thicker where levels of radiation poisoning are the highest.

Doubting that their evidence for radiation poisoning was strong enough, researchers then started a new test. They stuffed approximately 600 mesh bags with leaves from birch, maple, pine and oak trees from uncontaminated areas. They then lined half of these bags with women’s pantyhose to ensure that no bugs could get in them. These bags were placed in both areas with and without radiation poisoning.

After nearly a year—a time in which leaves typically decompose—researchers analyzed what remained in these bags and confirmed their hypothesis. Where there was less radiation, the leaf bags lost 70-90 percent of their weight. In contrast, the bags placed in more radiated areas retained about 60 percent of their weight. Additionally, the mesh bags lined with pantyhose showed significantly different results than the bags left unlined. Leaves in the unlined bags, the ones in which bugs could get in, also showed greater decomposition. This suggests that insects do play some role in the decomposition process.

According to recent studies, Chernobyl, with its 27 years' worth of dead leaves, is at high risk of forest fires. Mousseau indicated that if a fire starts, it could result in the radioactivity redistributing itself outside of Chernobyl.

What concerns researchers now is containing the radioactive areas. Unfortunately, scientists have not yet determined how to contain the radiation. They are working with researchers in Japan studying similar problems with hopes of reaching a solution soon.