Are Animals Near Chernobyl Mutating or Thriving?

The future of fusion and fission.
Jan. 21 2013 5:33 AM

Do Animals in Chernobyl’s Fallout Zone Glow?

The scientific debate about Europe’s unlikeliest wildlife sanctuary.

(Continued from Page 1)

Their work has attracted media attention, especially after the Fukushima nuclear calamity in Japan, perhaps because it fits so well with the zombie/mutant meme.

A phalanx of experts in environmental radioactivity have questioned Mousseau and Moller’s methods and conclusions, however, while the Ukrainian co-author who did the field work has repudiated their article claiming that birds avoid radioactive areas. He told Wired in 2011 that the experiments were never designed to test that hypothesis.

One flaw in the scientists’ research is that they studied the most inappropriate place possible. Moller and Mousseau claim that the greatest negative effects on wildlife populations are in Chernobyl’s “most contaminated” places—using the plural, which suggests they tested a lot of them. While the Chernobyl exclusion zone contains many “very contaminated” territories, it contains five “most contaminated” patches, and they sampled only one, the Red Forest. A stand of pine trees that turned red when high radiation killed their chlorophyll, the Red Forest was buried on the spot and planted with pine saplings. It is one of the few places you can still find the plant deformities seen shortly after the disaster. The young trees are short and stunted, resembling crazy twisted bushes.

It looks nothing like a natural pine forest. The birds that the Mousseau and Moller claim are avoiding radioactive areas are actually avoiding a really weird-looking habitat. It is hardly possible to pick a Chernobyl location guaranteed to have fewer animals. To then suggest that the low wildlife numbers in the Red Forest is representative of the remaining 99.098 percent of the zone’s territory is like claiming that animals are declining in Yellowstone National Park because you found few spiders in the parking lot.     

Deep in the zone’s interior, where the other “most contaminated” patches are and humans aren’t, is a restored swamp in Belarus where I once watched an amazing multitude of ducks, egrets, swans, and once-rare black storks rise in a raucous, squawking cloud, while a moose watched us from the other side of the road. Lake Hlyboke, by far the most radioactive waterway in the world, is another “most contaminated” place, where I spotted a black grouse, a flock of partridges, and three roe deer during an hour’s visit. A 2011 study found that species diversity is greater there than at any other Chernobyl lake.

Mousseau conceded in an email that “it is quite possible for there to be more animals in the radioactive areas” outside the places he and Moller studied. But he told the New York Times that “Over all, it’s a myth to suggest that animal abundances are higher in the Chernobyl exclusion zones.” And over email, he went on to assert, as he has many times, that no one has ever gone out and actually counted the animals—even though Belarus conducted systematic animal studies from 2005 to 2007 and selective censuses since.

Those studies found mammal diversity and abundance equal to that of a protected nature reserve, with rare species including bears, lynx, river otter, and badger as well as introduced herds of European bison and Przewalski’s horses. Bird diversity is even richer and includes 61 rare species. Whooper swans—never before reported in the region—now appear regularly.

Mousseau says they’ve changed their research protocols in response to some of their critics, but so far he and Moller have not ventured out of the Red Forest to research deeper into the other “most contaminated” places in Chernobyl’s evacuated zone. It will be a shame for science if they don’t. They are among the very few Western scientists doing research here. Until they find more meaningful measures of radiation’s impact on wildlife abundance, their broad claims about declining animal populations really apply to just one highly unrepresentative location.

The controversy ideally will spur better-designed studies, perhaps by critics. It’s about time for renewed interest in the impact of radiation on Chernobyl wildlife. More than a quarter-century has passed since that disaster. Fukushima showed us there will be more in the future.

If we are to make smart energy choices, science needs to learn a lot more about the risks of chronic, low-level environmental radiation. We still don’t know how safe is really safe. Earth’s nuclear wastelands are natural laboratories for asking many of these questions.

In the meantime, don’t worry. Chernobyl’s radioactive critters aren’t going anywhere—if we continue to leave them alone.

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