Almost 30 years ago, an unprecedented disaster struck in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, then under control of the USSR, experienced an explosion and subsequent fire, resulting in the death of 31 people and radioactive fallout across the USSR and Europe. To this day, scientists and researchers are still testing the results of the nuclear fallout in the nearby communities and ecosystems. The 1,100 square km area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is still uninhabitable, and many organisms are experiencing adverse effects from the radiation still present in the area.
A new study published in Oecologia, however, reveals that the nuclear fallout may have affected more species than originally thought, leading to future dire consequences for the area.
Researchers from the University of South Carolina, Shevchenko National University of Kiev, Westminster College and the University of Paris have been studying the effects of the Chernobyl disaster since 1991 and have only recently discovered news which could hold severe implications for the area in the near future.
When looking at trees which were killed in the initial blast in 1986, the researchers noticed an interesting trend: “We were stepping over all these dead trees on the ground that had been killed by the initial blast. 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,” stated lead researcher Tim Mousseau, a professor of biology at the University of South Carolina.
To test the effects of radiation on this lack of decomposition of the trees and their leaves, Mousseau and fellow researchers collected 600 mesh bags full of leaves from an uncontaminated site. Out of these bags, the scientists created two groups – those held in pantyhose, which would not allow for insects to pass through, and those in simple mesh bags which would allow for the presence of insects.
The scientists then scattered these mesh bags through The Red Forest and measured the rates of decay for different levels of radiation exposure. The results were shockingly surprising.
In those areas where no radiation was present, approximately 70 to 90 percent of the leaves decomposed. In those areas with high levels of radiation, only 40 percent of the leaves decomposed, leaving 60 percent of the total mass.
“The gist of our results was that the radiation inhibited microbial decomposition of the leaf litter on the top layer of the soil,” stated Mousseau.
While this news does not seem to be necessarily foreboding, the buildup of 28 years of dead, organic material could combust into something deadly soon: “This litter accumulation that we measured, which is likely a direct consequence of reduced microbial decomposing activity, is like kindling. It’s dry, light and burns quite readily. It adds to the fuel, as well as makes it more likely that catastrophically sized forest fires might start,” warned Mousseau.
If a catastrophic fire was to occur, it “… would end up moving radiocesium and other contaminants via smoke into populated areas,” something which Mousseau and his fellow researchers hope to avoid through their research.
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