April, 26th 2011

Is Chernobyl a Wild Kingdom or a Radioactive Den of Decay?

– Liz Mair

That's the title of this piece from WIRED. Definitely worth a read:

In the months after the accident, Soviet authorities undertook drastic measures to deal with the catastrophe. Almost 1,000 acres of the Red Forest had perished, and nearly 4 square miles of topsoil around the sarcophagus was scraped away and buried as radioactive waste. Of the 250 settlements and villages in the zone that were evacuated, the most radioactive were bulldozed in their entirety and interred. Contaminated livestock were slaughtered, and abandoned pet dogs were shot by teams of local hunters. By the time the process of liquidation was finished, the land surrounding the reactor had been transformed into a sterile moonscape, a nightmarish post-nuclear wasteland flattened by machinery and sprayed with chemicals designed to trap radioactive particles close to the ground.

Since then, nature has slowly crept in. Once an area of heavy industry and collectivized agriculture, the zone is now nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding countryside. The forest has reclaimed long-abandoned villages and farmland; roads and buildings are being swallowed up by thickets of trees and shrubs. The natural process of radioactive decay has already removed some toxic particles from the environment. Those isotopes with short half-lives have already disappeared. Some longer-lived isotopes gradually leached into the soil and have been dispersed by wind, birds, and insects.

About a decade ago, the animal sightings began. Naturalists started to report signs of an apparently remarkable recovery in the ecology of the quarantined territory. They photographed the tracks of a brown bear and saw wolves and boar roaming the streets of the abandoned town of Pripyat. In 2002, a young eagle owl—one of only 100 thought to be living in all of Ukraine at the time—was seen dozing on an abandoned excavator near the sarcophagus. The following year, an endangered white-tailed eagle was captured and radio-tagged within 3 miles of the plant. By early 2005, a herd of 21 rare Przewalski’s horses that had escaped from captivity in the quarantined area six years earlier had bred successfully and expanded to 64. It seemed the disaster that had banished industry, agriculture, pesticides, cars, and hunting from Chernobyl had inadvertently created a sprawling wildlife park.

Read it all.

I'm not a scientist and honestly, I have no clue what's going on in and around Chernobyl.

But I would like to believe that species found within the area are adapting and thriving.  I want to believe this is an instance in which evolution will be demonstrated.

I also hesitate to want either point demonstrated too well, however, like the Ukrainian scientist cited in the piece.  The conservationist animal-lover in me would like enough doubt and concern about risk to humans to remain that we keep well away from the area.  If Chernobyl and its surroundings are areas in which animals prove able to survive and get on, it would be nice for them to remain relatively unmolested by hunters, tourists and so on, something I doubt will happen if scientific opinion settles on the idea of the currently off-limits area becoming open to all, willy-nilly. [intro]



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