How Chernobyl became a wildlife refuge

The stray dogs of Chernobyl. Image: Getty.

Reactor number four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered an explosion during a technical test on April 26, 1986. As a result of the accident, in the then Soviet Union, more than 400 times more radiation was emitted than that released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Japan) in 1945. It remains the largest nuclear accident in history.

Decontamination work began immediately after the accident. An exclusion zone was created around the plant, and more than 350,000 people were evacuated from the area. They never returned. And severe restrictions on permanent human settlement are still in place today.

The accident had a major impact on the human population. Although there are not clear figures, the physical loss of human lives and physiological consequences were huge. Estimates of the number of human fatalities vary wildly.


The initial impact on the environment was also important. One of the areas more heavily affected by the radiation was the pine forest near the plant, known since then as the “Red Forest”. This area received the highest doses of radiation, the pine trees died instantly and all the leaves turned red. Few animals survived the highest radiation levels.

Therefore, after the accident it was assumed that the area would become a desert for life. Considering the long time that some radioactive compounds take to decompose and disappear from the environment, the forecast was that the area would remain devoid of wildlife for centuries.

Chernobyl wildlife today

But today, 33 years after the accident, the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which covers an area now in Ukraine and Belarus, is inhabited by brown bears, bisons, wolves, lynxes, Przewalski horses, and more than 200 bird species, among other animals.

In March 2019, most of the main research groups working with Chernobyl wildlife met in Portsmouth, England. About 30 researchers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Belgium, Norway, Spain and Ukraine presented the latest results of our work. These studies included work on big mammals, nesting birds, amphibians, fish, bumblebees, earthworms, bacteria and leaf litter decomposition.

These studies showed that at present the area hosts great biodiversity. In addition, they confirmed the general lack of big negative effects of current radiation levels on the animal and plant populations living in Chernobyl. All the studied groups maintain stable and viable populations inside the exclusion zone.

A clear example of the diversity of wildlife in the area is given by the TREE project (TRansfer-Exposure-Effects, led by Nick Beresford of the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology). As part of this project, motion detection cameras were installed for several years in different areas of the exclusion zone. The photos recorded by these cameras reveal the presence of abundant fauna at all levels of radiation. These cameras recorded the first observation of brown bears and European bison inside the Ukrainian side of the zone, as well as the increase in the number of wolves and Przewalski horses.

European bison (Bison bonasus), boreal lynx (Lynx lynx), moose (Alces alces) and brown bear (Ursus arctos) photographed inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). Image: Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack.

Our own work with the amphibians of Chernobyl has also detected abundant populations across the exclusion zone, even on the more contaminated areas. Furthermore, we have also found signs that could represent adaptive responses to life with radiation. For instance, frogs within the exclusion zone are darker than frogs living outside it, which is a possible defence against radiation.

An oriental treefrog (Hyla orientalis), Chernobyl (Ukraine). May 2018. Image: Germán Orizaola.

Studies have also detected some negative effects of radiation at an individual level. For example, some insects seem to have a shorter lifespan and are more affected by parasites in areas of high radiation. Some birds also have higher levels of albinism, as well as physiological and genetic alterations when living in highly contaminated localities. But these effects don’t seem to affect the maintenance of wildlife population in the area.

The general absence of negative effects of radiation on Chernobyl wildlife can be a consequence of several factors:

First, wildlife could be much more resistant to radiation than previously thought. Another alternative possibility is that some organisms could be starting to show adaptive responses that would allow them to cope with radiation and live inside the exclusion zone without harm. In addition, the absence of humans inside the exclusion zone could be favouring many species – big mammals in particular.

That final option would suggest that the pressures generated by human activities would be more negative for wildlife in the medium-term than a nuclear accident – a quite revealing vision of the human impact on the natural environment.

The future of Chernobyl

In 2016 the Ukrainian part of the exclusion zone was declared a radiological and environmental biosphere reserve by the national government.

Forest and meadows inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). May 2016. Image: Germán Orizaola. Image: Germán Orizaola.

Over the years, Chernobyl has also become an excellent natural laboratory for the study of evolutionary processes in extreme environments, something that could prove valuable given the rapid environmental changes experienced worldwide.

At present, several projects are trying to resume human activities in the area. Tourism has flourished in Chernobyl, with more than 70,000 visitors in 2018. There also plans for developing solar power plants in the area, and for expanding forestry work. Last year, there was even an art installation and techno party inside the abandoned city of Prypiat.

Over the past 33 years, Chernobyl has gone from the being considered a potential dessert for life to being an area of high interest for biodiversity conservation.

It may sound strange, but now we need to work to maintain the integrity of the exclusion zone as a nature reserve if we want to guarantee that in the future Chernobyl will remain a refuge for wildlife.

The Conversation

Germán Orizaola, Investigador Programa Ramón y Cajal, Universidad de Oviedo.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Five ways the UK can prepare for its next heatwave

Brighton, 2014. Image: Getty.

The 2018 summer heatwave in the UK broke records – and it won’t be the last spell of such severe heat. In fact, climate change means that hot summers which would once occur twice a century may soon occur twice a decade. As the population grows and ages, this will lead to more premature heat-related deaths and place extra strain on physical and mental health services.

Previous research on resilience to heatwaves, such as last year’s report by parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, has focused predominantly on policy, regulation and infrastructure. Such research barely addresses behavioural or social responses that occur during hot weather events and how these can contribute to building resilience.

This is what my own work looks at. In a new book I explore these ideas and assessed how to improve resilience to climate change through communication, collaboration and co-production. So what can the UK do to be better prepared for heatwaves in future?

1. Remember that heatwaves are a serious threat

People must be trained to think more carefully about their vulnerabilities and responses to hot weather. Everyone’s experience of hot weather varies, and this is often associated with positive memories of past summers where they’d enjoy the heat, venture outside and make the most of a potentially short-lived summer.

But this often leads to people being more exposed to the effects of the sun, which affects their health and productivity and puts extra strain on hospitals. Hot temperatures also cause roads to melt and train track to buckle, resulting in delays. As hot weather becomes more common, people need to bear these things in mind.

2. Factor in behavioural change

While appropriate regulation and policies are important, they must represent how people respond to heatwaves and how their experiences affect their behaviour. This can be incorporated into broader thinking around other topics.

Buildings, for instance, can be insulated to stay warm in the winter yet cool in the summer, but we need to better understand how people behave in buildings during those periods to ensure appropriate use.

And working practices can be adjusted so people can work outside periods of intense heat. People rarely want to stay at home all day, so more water fountains should be provided in public places.


3. Get better at talking about hot weather

British people famously love talking about the weather. But they still need to get better at talking about heatwaves specifically, and how they can become more resilient to them. That means things like sharing whether they’re feeling the load of the hot weather or sharing ways to stay cool.

Better communication will also help people understand who’s doing what during a hot weather event (for example, emergency services under extra strain, or bus and train drivers working in tough conditions).

4. Learn from the neighbours

Learn from other others. Mediterranean countries, for instance, are used to the hot weather and people there have adopted simple practices to help them cope with the stress: closing shutters during the hot weather, avoiding being outside or on the beach during peak heat temperatures, painting buildings white, staying hydrated and avoiding strenuous activities during hot weather. Countries in northern Europe that are just getting used to severe heatwaves could adopt these practices.

5. Invest in resilience and communication

Investment should be pro-active, rather than reactive. That means working closely with scientists to anticipate the risks from heatwaves, getting a better understanding of our vulnerabilities and the potential measures we can take. Ensure buildings (especially hospitals and care homes) and infrastructure are better prepared to withstand hot weather events and that regulation is updated to better reflect this, without which the number of heatwave-related deaths would increase.

The Conversation

Candice Howarth, Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Climate Change Communication, University of Surrey.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.