Although relatively high levels of background radiation may be having some detrimental impact on wildlife living in the Chernobyl inclusion zone in central Ukraine, the disappearance of humans has apparently more than made up for it. According to a new study, many wildlife populations in the area close to the Chernobyl reactor that melted down in 1986 and spewed radioactive steam for hundreds of miles are actually flourishing.
Although scientists had assumed (based on limited early studies) that wildlife populations in the radiation-contaminated Chernobyl exclusion zone would be impacted negatively, this new study has found that quite a few large mammal populations (including elk, roe deer, red deer, wild boar and especially wolves) are thriving.
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The new research was published in Current Biology last week. Somewhat ironically, this study suggests for large mammal wildlife, a nuclear disaster may actually be less harmful over the medium-term than encroachment by humans.
More on Chernobyl wildlife study
The good news is that this long-term study not only gives hope regarding the resiliency of animal populations to radiation exposure, but also will assist scientists in dealing with the impact on wildlife from other such nuclear disasters, such as the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant four years ago.
The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in the then Soviet Union was probably the world’s worst nuclear disaster. An explosion at the plant led to the release of a plume of radioactive steam and particles into the atmosphere, eventually spreading across a number of countries and the evacuation of more than 116,000 people from the radioactive 1,622 square-mile Chernobyl exclusion zone.
The study involved an international research group that tracked animal activity in the Polessye State Radioecological Reserve (an area of the Chernobyl exclusion zone n Belarus of 836 square miles that represents almost half of the exclusion zone). The researchers analyzed population density estimates based on winter track survey routes, and then compared these figures with the statistics from other uncontaminated (less contaminated) areas of the Polessye Reserve..
Statement from researchers
The study authors, led by T.G. Deryabina, noted: “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.”
They continued to say: “Several previous studies of the Chernobyl exclusion zone indicated major radiation effects and pronounced reductions in wildlife populations at dose rates well below those thought to cause significant impacts.”