It's hard to find a bright side to the world's worst-ever nuclear disaster, but wildlife may beg to differ. After the 1986 fire and explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant released radioactive particles into the atmosphere, everyone left, never to return. But now researchers studying animal populations have made a seriously counterintuitive discovery:
The Chernobyl site looks less like a disaster zone and "more like a nature preserve," rife with elk, roe deer, red deer, wild boar, foxes, wolves, and others.
"It's very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident," says Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth in the UK. "This doesn't mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming, and forestry, are a lot worse."
Human beings are worse for wildlife than nuclear disaster. That's pretty sobering.
Earlier reports from the 1,600 square mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have shown major radiation effects and pronounced drops in wildlife populations. But the new study, based on long-term census data, reveals that mammal populations have bounced back. The number of animals in the exclusion zone now rival those in four uncontaminated nature reserves in the region.
Remarkably, the number of wolves living in the Chernobyl area is more than seven times greater than can be found in any of the other reserves.
They have found a rare Przewalski's horse and European lynx, which were previously gone from the region but have now returned. They also report a European brown bear in the exclusion zone. European brown bears have not been seen in that region for more than a century.
"These results demonstrate for the first time that, regardless of potential radiation effects on individual animals, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone supports an abundant mammal community after nearly three decades of chronic radiation exposure," the study conclude. The researchers point out that this boost in population came at a time when elk and wild boar populations were diminishing in other parts of the former Soviet Union.
"These unique data showing a wide range of animals thriving within miles of a major nuclear accident illustrate the resilience of wildlife populations when freed from the pressures of human habitation," notes co-author Jim Beasley.
As for longer-term effects we don't know – and there are questions about the impact on other species – but for now these animals are flourishing in their abandoned wildlife wonderland. Welcome to dystopian utopia.