Ruins Reclaimed - Specialization Week


Combat reconnaissance-patrol vehicle at the militia/police station in Pripyat near Chernobyl. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We hear much about the dangers that human actions impart on the world’s ecosystems. Detrimental environmental effects due to massive de-forestation or industrial endeavors producing carbon dioxide emissions are only a few of the major now well-versed common culprits in man’s war against nature.

But, however less common, there do exist instances where nature has been helped along by man’s material progress. These effects are almost always inadvertent and unexpected consequences of human expansion of the modern world. They are generally small in scale, resulting in the proliferation of one or two species that thrive off of a particular set of environmental factors created by human construction products or terrain meddling. Examples of large-scale, significant benefits to the environment that happen accidentally are uncommon. That is why this story is so extraordinary.

Deep in the heart of the former Soviet Union lies an area completely deserted by humans; a place of wreckage left to evolve of its own accord, deemed so poisoned to its core that no man dares to live there. The place is Chernobyl; and what has become of its abandoned perimeters is nothing short of amazing.

Twenty-six years ago our planet experienced the worst man-made disaster that it has ever seen. The Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown produced radiation in the surrounding area 200 times of that experienced at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Occurring in what was once officially the Ukrainian SSR, this explosion and the resulting fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere which spread as far as the Western USSR and Europe.

But the bulk of this toxic material settled down right around the reactor’s surrounding city of Prypiat, a young and vibrant city that was swiftly evacuated, the people quite literally fleeing from their homes. The resulting landscape was an utter ghost town; an eerie, emptied, and crumbling land complete with dilapidated buildings, an old rusting ferris wheel, and ever-thickening dust layers. The area closest to the fallout, the so-called “exclusion zone,” became known as the Red Forest because of the ginger-brown color of the Pine trees that were scathed from the radiation. It seemed nothing would, or could, ever live there again.

The state of the Red Forest, as it stands today, has beaten all odds that bet on its ecological demise. Instead of a barren desert landscape that many scientists forecasted, there exists a vibrant and lush terra firma replete with healthy and proliferating mammal and bird populations. It seems there exists a large amount of variation in the ability of different living organisms to withstand the effects of radiation poisoning- with humans being the most sensitive of all to its effects. Although the Pine tree species did not fare well, other kinds of trees not only survived, but also proliferated, and the forest began to encroach upon the abandoned city of Prypiat, essentially extending the area that animals could freely roam. After the forest took over the empty towns, the animals followed suit- it is now a common sight to see birds, wolves, or owls inhabiting old cottages, factories, and schools.

The area has even become home to rare and endangered species such as the lynx, Przewalski’s horses, and several types of owl. Eagles soaring in the sky, a proven indicator of a healthy ecosystem, is a common sight here.

More than 90 percent of the radioactivity in the Red Forest is concentrated in the soil; and anything living in, or ingesting that soil is fed varying amounts of radiation. Though the abnormality rate amongst many of the animals here is higher than normal, the radiation does not seem to have affected population numbers or the general robustness of most species. It seems that the absence of human pressures has outweighed any effects of radiation, creating a truly undisturbed environment for animals. One species that has done very well in particular in this reclaimed wasteland is the grey wolf, which now thrives in high numbers throughout the Red Forest. Wild boar and moose are other animals that have not been seen in this area for decades until the Chernobyl explosion created this most unlikely of wildlife sanctuaries. What man has forsaken, nature has commandeered in full force.

The Chernobyl incident has become a bittersweet issue, reflecting both the potential horrors of man-made biohazards and the strength and resilience of nature to rebound and rebuild in the wake of destruction. Some researchers hope the forest will one day become a national park, but then the very circumstances that allowed the wilderness to take hold of the area would be reversed as man re-enters the picture. But perhaps the most notable (and sadly ironic) aspect of the ecological comeback of the area surrounding Chernobyl is the blaring fact that the presence of man was more detrimental to wildlife than an enormous and lingering toxic event.