Life Persists Around Chernobyl

Thirty years ago, an explosion at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl resulted in one of the worst environmental disasters in history. Although very few people live in the area, near the Belarusian border in Ukraine, wildlife lives on ­from insects to mammals. Researchers including British environmental scientists Mike Wood and Jim Smith, and Ukrainian biologist Sergei Gashchak are looking into the effects of the radiation on natural habitats and animals in the exclusion zone at Chernobyl. With spikes in cancer rates, and areas where great amounts of radiation remains, effects on human populations are evident. The very low number of human residents effectively makes the area a wildlife preserve, though it may seem unfit for any life to persist there.

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Mammals like wolves, boars, and deer thrive in this environment without human pressures to encroach upon natural habitats, while more rare species like lynx, bears, and wild horses can also be found. The removal of hunting, land use changes, and more is the leading cause of the resurgence of animal populations; on the other hand, the radiation is the most significant force against wildlife. However, the radiation is focused in certain areas. For example, some fish have been caught and tested, finding no notable levels of radiation.

Chernobyl radiation map, Source: CIA handbook. 1996.

Chernobyl radiation map, Source: CIA handbook. 1996.

On the Living on Earth radio show, Jim Smith spoke about his research in Chernobyl. His earlier research on aquatic insects, found that greater radiation levels among lakes did not negatively affect insect numbers and species diversity. Mammals populations also grew in the first decade after the disaster. The radiation, he says, “doesn’t affect the [mammal] population, although it on rare occasions may affect the individual [animal]”. He concludes:

“We can’t see it, we can’t smell it, it kind of has all the elements of things that make us afraid, and I think perhaps we’re more afraid than we should be. Yes, it’s dangerous, but it’s perhaps not as dangerous as we think it is.”

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Webcam pictures from Chernobyl: