Chernobyl Study Reveals Radioactive Impact On Ecosystem Almost 30 Years Later

Sean Mahoney

A Chernobyl study has revealed massive meat eating plants, 6 legged wolves and glowing three-headed rabbits that speak fluent Italian, German and some English. Just kidding.

But, while not quite as exotic, a recently released study on the area around Chernobyl has made some astonishing finds. The results of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are still in evidence almost 30 years later and the radiation released continues to impact the surrounding ecosystem, the Chernobyl study confirmed.

With the recent, and ongoing, nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the study sheds light on what may be in store for that area of Japan as well as the ongoing, long term costs to the environment associated with any future nuclear disasters.

Since 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up, much of what was in the surrounding area of Chernobyl died. But what's strange is that since then, very little has changed, and that's what prompted the study.

CBS News reports that dead trees, plants, and leaves in the Chernobyl area don't decay like plants in normal, healthy environments. In fact they've hardly decayed at all since the disaster, according to researchers who did the study.

"We were stepping over all these dead trees on the ground that had been killed by the initial blast," said Tim Mousseau, professor of biology at the University of South Carolina. "Years later, these tree trunks were in pretty good shape. If a tree had fallen in my backyard, it would be sawdust in 10 years or so."

Mousseau, along with Anders Møller of the Université Paris-Sud, has focused study on the biology of radioactive areas like Chernobyl and Fukushima, leading them to Chernobyl's aptly named, Red Forest. The trees turned rusty, brownish-reddish color decades ago, following the radioactive meltdown, ghostly sentinels surrounding the largely lifeless Chernobyl.

Studying them over time, the researchers realized that the tree trunks hardly seemed to change.

"Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them," Mousseau told the Smithsonian.

They also noticed significant amounts of debris in the Chernobyl area. Leaves, sticks and other organic matter seemed almost unaffected by the passing of time. Also, the piles of debris were thickest in the areas where the Chernobyl reactor delivered its worst radiation poisoning.

The lack of life combined with the lack of decay lead to an experimental study of the materials. Researchers stuffed 600 mesh bags full of leaves that they got from an uncontaminated area away from Chernobyl. Four different kinds of leaves were used for the study: oak, maple, birch and pine. They made sure no insects were in the bags and then created an additional, breathable barrier in half of them, using pantyhose to keep insects out, while the wider mesh-only non-pantyhose bags were left to receive whatever could get inside.

Hanging the bags in various places around the Chernobyl area for the study, the researchers left them for almost a year - plenty of time for any insects or organisms to get in and break the vegetation down, they figured - and when they returned they were pleased to find some revealing results.

Right away they could see that insects had a big impact on getting rid of the leaves, but when comparing the panty hose-lined bags with just the plain mesh ones, it was clear that the microbes and fungi had an even bigger impact.

In places where there was no radiation, 70 to 90 percent of the leaves had disappeared after a year. But in places where radiation remained from Chernobyl, the leaves maintained about 60 percent of what they weighed to start with.

With hundreds of bags spread far and wide for the study, outside factors such as humidity, temperature, and types of forest and soil, were able to be statistically controlled, confirming that only the radiation levels were impacting how the leaves decomposed.

"The gist of our results was that the radiation inhibited microbial decomposition of the leaf litter on the top layer of the soil," said Mousseau. In other words, no nutrients are getting returned to the soil, which could stunt tree growth in the areas surrounding Chernobyl.

The lack of decomposition has also left an inordinate amount of combustible litter surrounding Chernobyl, creating concerns about fire.

"There is growing concern that there could be a catastrophic fire in the coming years," said Mousseau.

Just what Chernobyl needs, another catastrophe.

[Images via Bing]