Chernobyl: Wildlife Haven or a Dangerous Wasteland?

chernobyl reactor four photo

Image credit: Carl Montgomery/Flickr

Typically, when an area is fenced off from human populations, nature moves in and flourishes. This simple idea—on which all conservation land management is founded—seems obvious. But in the Chernobyl exclusion zone—an area that was isolated after the 1986 disaster—the opposite is true.

Even after decades free of human contact, animals still struggle to survive in this wildlife preserve nearly 200 square miles in size.This, at least, is the finding of Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina and Dr. Anders Moller of the University of Paris-Sud, France. From 2006 to 2009, the researchers counted and examined a variety of wildlife including insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Their study suggests that the contamination has had a significant impact on the area's biodiversity.

"The truth is," Mousseau explained, "that these radiation contamination effects were so large as to be overwhelming."

Previous research has suggested that the local ecosystems have been unable to rebuild themselves after several species were extirpated as a result of the accident. Even those species that have persisted, this latest survey shows, have not done so without difficulties.

Birds, in particular, showed signs of radiation exposure. Barn swallows were documented with tumors on their eyes, feet, and necks. "We think they may be more susceptible," Mousseau explained, "after their long migrations, to additional environmental stress."

Haven or Wasteland?

Some Ukrainian researchers, notably Dr. Sergii Gashchak, have argued that, in fact, the Chernobyl exclusion zone has been a boon to wildlife in the area—allowing for the recovery and reintroduction of several species.

"Wildlife really thrives in Chernobyl area," Gashchak says, "due to the low level of [human] influence." Furthermore, he contends that because "all life appeared and developed under the influence of radiation," animals have evolved to survive the conditions.

Such claims motivated the Ukrainian government, in 2007, to declare the exclusion zone a wildelife sanctuary. However, evidence that species are thriving there, Mousseau argues, is "purely anecdotal."

Still, Mousseau believes that establishing the area as a wildlife preserve was a smart move. "It's a natural laboratory," he says, "where we can study the long-term consequences of this kind of an accident."

Accepting the realities of such a disaster is, of course, the most important lesson from this research. Mousseau explains that "if society is ever to learn more about the long term environmental consequences of large scale accidents—and Chernobyl is just one of several—it is important that we all take our responsibilities seriously."

Read more about ecological catastrophes:
Real World Half-Life: Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Still Harming Animals
8 Worst Man-made Environmental Disasters of All Time
Gulf Oil Spill: Complete Coverage from TreeHugger and Planet Green

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