Chernobyl Plant Life: A Disaster Waiting to Re-Happen


The Chernobyl damage affected more than the people in the area. The surrounding plant life is having its own share of issues. The radiological damage seen in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster is not only keeping plant life from growing, it is keeping it from decomposing. The journal Oecologia released a paper which states that microbes near the disaster site have slowed the rate of decomposition of fallen trees, leaves, and other area plant life. An amount of dry, loose debris has built up in the area which may result in the Chernobyl plant life causing what amounts to a disaster waiting to re-happen in an area that has already had to endure such a major disaster. According to experts, this buildup of detritus is nothing other than a wildfire waiting to happen, a threat poised to spread the radioactivity by conflagration.

A biology professor at the University of South Carolina, Tim Mousseau, has been studying the biology of radioactive areas such as Chernobyl. In partnership with Mousseau, Anders Møller from the Université Paris-Sud, has also spent a lot of time examining the Red Forest. The Red Forest is a wooded area surrounding Chernobyl so named because the trees in the forest typically changed a portentous shade of red prior to dying. The researchers found that while they were stepping over trees which had been killed by the initial blast, the dead trunks did not seem to be decaying. Chernobyl, a 1986 event, happened 28 years ago. By comparison, Mousseau indicates that a tree falling somewhere else, such as his backyard, would likely be sawdust in about 10 years.

What the researchers were given to worry about at this juncture is not just the fact that the fallen trees and leaves are not decaying, but what that may mean. The non-decaying plant life surrounding the Chernobyl area isn’t just a scientific oddity but an actual disaster waiting to happen, or in this case, re-happen. The initial disaster at Chernobyl changed the lives of countless people, both those near the disaster site and others. New policy was implemented, new ideas were formed, new data was able to be taken into account for future projects. But the data was collected off the tragedies of those in the vicinity, those people who had to live, and die, through the ordeal.

ChernobylThe pool of data retrieved from the Chernobyl disaster continues to increase. In this instance, scientists can view the fact that the ecology has been altered in some very significant ways. The trees which have fallen and died have simply not decomposed. The leaves and twigs and other items which would normally reduce themselves to dust have simply remained. The decomposition rates have not ceased, but they have slowed to a crawl. Mousseau and Møller set up an experiment to assess the rate of decomposition as altered by the Chernobyl meltdown disaster and the resultant radiation.

The experiment began with the collection of samples of leaf litter from areas which were not radioactively contaminated. The leaf litter consisted of oak, maple, and birch leaves as well as pine needles. These sample bags were not only placed around Chernobyl, but also at other uncontaminated sites for control purposes. The samples were left for nine months. What the team found supported the observations of the lack of decay in the contaminated area. The degree of decay from those samples placed in uncontaminated areas marked a striking difference from the decay in those areas of contamination. There was 40 percent less decomposition from the radioactive site samples than from the others. In fact, the degree of decay was found to be proportional to the degree of radioactive contamination.

Not only was the rate of decay measured, but also the rate of weight loss per sample. The team found that the statistical analysis of the leaf litter weights showed that those bags placed in contaminated areas remained heavier and experienced less weight loss than those samples placed in non-radioactive areas. To correlate this to the amount of material on the ground, they then measured the thickness of the forest floor in the areas where the samples were placed. The results again supported the evidence of the sample bags and showed that the forest floors were thicker in places that exhibited higher levels of radiation. The conclusion the pair reached was that the radiation hindered the survival of the bacteria and fungi that decompose plant matter. The ecosystem itself had been changed and has not yet recovered.

ChernobylWhile the animal populations have been studied in areas of radioactive contaminants, such as Chernobyl, this experiment was a way to broaden research and include both the microbial and plant communities in contaminated ecosystems. Given the information the researchers found, they additionally conclude that the potential for another spread of the radioactive contaminants is a possibility.

The leaf litter still not decomposed on the forest floors around Chernobyl are dosed with radiation. The forest floor is thicker with detritus which is now light, and dry, and would readily burn. A forest fire in this area would redistribute radioactive contaminants via smoke to other, possibly populated, areas. The decreased decomposition of the plant life around Chernobyl, the mass of leaves and trees which has accumulated yet not broken down, would potentially create a catastrophic disaster; a disaster that has already happened simply waiting for the right spark in order to re-happen.

By Dee Mueller
on twitter @TuesdayDG

Science 2.0
ZME Science

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