Wild ‘paradise’ nearly 40 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

The area around the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant is now filled with wildlife and is an ideal place for scientists to study.

Animals in the Chernobyl area. Image: University of Georgia

Nearly 40 years ago, on April 26, 1986, the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine, marked a terrible tragedy in human history. The widespread toxic clouds exposed about 8.4 million people to nuclear radiation. More than 250,000 people got cancer and about 100,000 died.

The Soviet Union established a 2,700 square kilometer “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone” around the plant, erecting a fence with a radius of about 30 km and prohibiting people from accessing it due to pollution. In addition to the trauma that humans have suffered to date, the Chernobyl disaster also devastated the landscape by causing great damage to living things and infrastructure.

In 2016, the United Nations designated April 26 as International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day to continue supporting affected communities, honoring human life and reflecting on the lessons from the disaster with a view to moving forward. a more sustainable future.

Radiation ecologists see human-evacuated places like Chernobyl as rare opportunities to study what happens when humans leave the landscape. “Radiation is spread around us at very low levels. By studying the effects of exposure and using these landscapes as models, we can understand more about the wider impacts beyond the East Europe and Japan (where the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred)”, Interesting Engineering April 26 quoted Jim Beasley, a researcher at the University of Georgia.

Chernobyl experienced huge human losses, but ecologists were surprised to discover that wild creatures had taken over the place. The absence of humans causes plants to thrive, taking over architectural works. Animals return, establishing habitats in structures that were once homes, office buildings or schools. Many places in Chernobyl today look like a nature reserve – something no one expected before.

“Decades have passed since the disaster, radiation levels have decreased due to radioactive decay, and we’ve seen the resurgence of a diverse wildlife community in the exclusion zone,” Beasley said. Although biological populations are thriving, researchers are still unclear exactly how radiation affects animals, even in small quantities. Therefore, they want to collect more data.

The presence of important predators in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, including wolves, helped scientists see that wildlife was thriving in the contaminated area. Image: Jim Beasley

A team of experts at the University of Georgia has developed a model of animal collars to study radiation in places where humans cannot live and are dangerous to enter. This method is also suitable because they cannot relocate wild animals, especially when they have been exposed to radiation.

In 2012, Beasley and a group of international researchers went to Chernobyl to attach collars to wolves in the restricted zone. The collar helps collect data quickly and send it to a computer via satellite.

At the time, Beasley and other scientists had a general belief that populations would decline more sharply in areas with higher pollution levels. But when they collared wolves in the restricted area and launched other studies to estimate populations, they found that was simply not true.

Populations of large mammals increased after humans left. They are widely distributed throughout the prohibited area, including more heavily polluted areas around the old factory. “Species like the Eurasian lynx and brown bear have naturally colonized this area,” Beasley said. Surprisingly, Chernobyl even became a safe haven for scientists to bring back endangered animals, such as European bison and Przewalski’s horse.

Nothing can alleviate the damage that the Chernobyl disaster caused to people. However, the fact that wildlife still seems to be able to survive, even thrive, after nearly 40 years presents a hopeful picture. Scientists can also continue to use the site to develop new tools and conduct meaningful research on radiation.

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