Decades after the worst nuclear accident of all time, new research suggests the evacuated forests around Chernobyl are home to more animals than ever.
image via (cc) flickr user arcticwoof
When the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caught fire and exploded on April 26, 1986, the release of irradiated gas into the atmosphere above Ukraine ensured that the name “Chernobyl” would forever be synonymous with the catastrophic dangers of atomic energy. Now, nearly thirty years after the accident, with billions of dollars spent, and dozens of lives lost, the entirely evacuated area around the plant–known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone–has become an unexpected haven for wildlife. In fact, new research indicates that, despite the massive amount of radiation expelled from the Chernobyl facilities during the accident, animals living in the area around the abandoned power plant are not only surviving–they’re thriving.
Entitled “Long-term census data reveal abundant wildlife populations at Chernobyl,” a paper published this week in Current Biology magazine reports that deer, boar, and elk populations in the immediate vicinity of Chernobyl are comparable with population levels outside the exclusion zone. The number of wolves, however, is seven times more than in neighboring areas. In the paper’s introduction, the researchers write:
image via (cc) flickr user lord_yo
Relative abundances of elk, roe deer, red deer and wild boar within the Chernobyl exclusion zone are similar to those in four (uncontaminated) nature reserves in the region and wolf abundance is more than 7 times higher. Additionally, our earlier helicopter survey data show rising trends in elk, roe deer and wild boar abundances from one to ten years post-accident. 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 exposures.
While radiation from the Chernobyl may still have an adverse effect on individual animals, the overall population levels for wildlife in the area are either unaffected, or in some cases have exponentially grown it the years following the catastrophe. Why? The study’s authors offer a shockingly simple explanation.
There are no human beings.
“It's very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident,” explained Portsmouth University Professor Jim Smith, the study’s lead author, in a release. “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.” Speaking with Agence France-Presse, study co-author and University of Georgia professor Jim Beasley, concurred, saying: “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.”
Encouraging as the study’s results may be for Chernobyl specifically, the resurgence in wildlife may also offer clues for how best to deal with other nuclear disasters, such as the one which took place at Japan’s Fukushima power plant in 2011. Ultimately, it seems as if the best thing human beings can do to help wildlife recover after major catastrophic events might be to simply let nature run its course, without us.