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Chernobyl wildlife garden of eden?
August 27, 2007 9:31 PM   Subscribe

The Chernobyl exclusion zone has been mythologized as a sort of wildlife garden of eden with storks, bears, birds, wolfs, pigs etc.. taking over in the absence of man. However it turns out the reports are anecdotal, there have been no formal scientific studies - until now. According to this study of birds, both the number of species and abundance of individuals declined with increasing radiation levels. For example, the most contaminated sites had about two-thirds fewer birds than those with normal levels of radiation. Chernobyl is far from a wildlife paradise, “This was a big surprise to us,” biologist Dr. Mousseau of the University of South Carolina said. “We had no idea of the impact.”
posted by stbalbach (33 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Abstract: "Elevated frequency of abnormalities in barn swallows from Chernobyl", Biology Letters, Volume 3, Number 4 / August 22, 2007
posted by stbalbach at 9:32 PM on August 27, 2007


Chernobyl previously (earlier)
posted by Poolio at 9:37 PM on August 27, 2007


I'm sorry - why was this surprising?

The DMZ on the Korean peninsula, now - that's a different matter.
posted by rtha at 9:42 PM on August 27, 2007


Thanks stalbach. I especially appreciate the direct link to the paper.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:52 PM on August 27, 2007


Wait, you mean high levels of radioactivity are inimical to life? Dammit, I better stop eating Kelloggs Polonium Krispies™ for breakfast! Damn you, soulless marketing hype!
posted by moonbiter at 9:55 PM on August 27, 2007


I'm sorry - why was this surprising?

Exactly because of the stuff described in the first link. National Geographic, for example:
But it turns out that the radioactive cloud may have a silver lining. Recent studies suggest that the 19-mile (30-kilometer) "exclusion zone" set up around the reactor has turned into a wildlife haven.
That was anecdotal, however, and I think was more a reaction to expecting no wildlife and instead seeing it run freely through a formerly built up area. Deer running down abandoned streets, etc.

After people did a systematic head count of birds ("This bird has two heads... this one has three heads..."), they found that it was not a paradise, not for birds. The bird populations are indeed still lower in areas with higher radioactivity than they are in areas with normal levels.
posted by pracowity at 10:03 PM on August 27, 2007


Chernobyl is far from a wildlife paradise

Well, it's nice to see someone's getting an idea of the dangers of nuclear power.
posted by fandango_matt at 10:09 PM on August 27, 2007


It can be handy. I still use an '86 Bordeaux as a light in my wine cellar.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:14 PM on August 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


Perhaps the birds are the canary in the uranium mine, so to speak, and the insects, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles are doing better?
posted by anthill at 10:26 PM on August 27, 2007


No formal scientific studies? Really?

AIKEN, S.C. - On July 22 an agreement between the United States and the government of Ukraine was signed establishing a permanent international radioecology laboratory in the city of Chernobyl near the site of the 1986 nuclear accident. The object of the five-year agreement is to establish the scope of cooperation between the two governments in the conduct of field oriented research and state-of-the-art analysis on a year-round basis at a laboratory to be called the International Radioecology Laboratory (IRL) in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine.

LUBBOCK – After 12 years of studying the Chernobyl disaster and the repercussions radioactive fallout has had in the area, two Texas Tech researchers say populations of plants and animals in the area are better off than in non-affected areas.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:34 PM on August 27, 2007


The bird populations are indeed still lower in areas with higher radioactivity than they are in areas with normal levels.

Not if you count two-headed birds twice. It's all about methodology.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:49 PM on August 27, 2007


posted by Blazecock Pileon Not if you count two-headed birds twice.

Does that mean each head is half a bird? Or would a three-headed bird be counted as six birds?
posted by fandango_matt at 11:01 PM on August 27, 2007


I'm a bit saddened by this. I was liking the idea that wildlife could potentially flourish in areas that we would deem unsafe for ourselves.

Assuming it had been accurate, we could have walled off bits of Africa and just said "Whoops, we dropped a couple of nukes in that area, now it's totally unsafe. Humans will die. Sorry 'bout that."

And in 30 years, we would see the elephant and rhino populations booming.

Pity.
posted by quin at 11:10 PM on August 27, 2007


FACT: Radiation has little to no side effects on human and animal life.
posted by 29 at 11:12 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


FACT: Troll.
posted by fandango_matt at 11:16 PM on August 27, 2007


FACT: Radiation has little to no side effects on human and animal life.

FACT: Radiation will burn, maim and kill human and most animal life (example).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:22 PM on August 27, 2007


Does that mean each head is half a bird? Or would a three-headed bird be counted as six birds?

Sorry, just a bit of levity about science in the age of George Bush. Yes: an n-headed bird would be counted as n individual birds.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:24 PM on August 27, 2007


FACT: Cyanide is safe for consumption.

FACT: A bullet is less lethal in the head than in the wrist.

FACT: More people die from jellyfish than car accidents.

FACT: I can kill you with my brain.

FACT: My dog is probably smarter than anyone who has suggested that radioactive materials have harmed no-one.

FACT: My dog is crazy smart

Note to new readers, that last fact, is actually true. She is like some sort of canine genius. Seriously, she is more clever than children of the same age, but I digress...
posted by quin at 11:29 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


posted by Blazecock Pileon an n-headed bird would be counted as n individual birds.

Okay, so if what you're really counting are bird heads, not birds. Therefore, a headless bird is not a bird. Even if we assume it must have once had a head, since we do not know how many heads it had, we cannot count it.
posted by fandango_matt at 11:34 PM on August 27, 2007


FACT: Radioactive beans will allow you to generate fluorescent flatulence that smells as sweet as roses
posted by From Bklyn at 11:59 PM on August 27, 2007


Science is such a fucking hard ass.
posted by stavrogin at 1:10 AM on August 28, 2007


FACT: Troll.
posted by fandango_matt at 2:16 AM on August 28
FACT: Radiation will burn, maim and kill human and most animal life (example).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:22 AM on August 28


Way to miss the joke, guys.
posted by stavrogin at 1:17 AM on August 28, 2007


I think the point is that in general nuclear radiation is a lot less dangerous to most wildlife than to humans. Radiation (in the kind of doses found in the area around Chernobyl) tends to kill by causing cancers - but it takes quite a long time to do it. Most animals don't live that long anyway, and are much more likely to die by being eaten by another animal.

The point isn't that nuclear radiation is completely safe, but that in the scale of dangerous things it's only humans who expect to live long lives pretty much entirely free of danger who have the luxury of worrying about it. Most animals are far too busy worrying about something with claws that might come in the night.

In fact, compared to the dangers of living around humans (town and cities and their surroundings, or even industrialised agricultural land) the risks posed by radiation are *tiny*. City dwellers - have you looked around you recently seen much animal life ?

Compared to the likelihood of being mown down by a car, poisoned, having your habitat paved over by asphalt or dug up by tractors, having your food source wiped poisoned by pest controllers etc. most wildlife stands a much better chance in Chernobyl than in any area inhabited by humans.

From what I can tell from quickly reading this article it doesn't seem to challenge that idea at all - it just says there are less birds in the most intensively radioactive areas, compared to the less radioactive areas. That's not really very surprising - it's quite probable that most creatures tend to stay away from the most heavily contaminated areas.

I would be very, very, very surprised though if it turned out that there was less wildlife even in these highly radioactive regions than in, say, the average town centre.
posted by silence at 2:30 AM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would be very, very, very surprised though if it turned out that there was less wildlife even in these highly radioactive regions than in, say, the average town centre.

That's probably true, but is that a good comparison? Don't you need to compare Chernobyl to a similarly isolated and deserted area in a similar climate but with no history of nuclear stupidity?

Of course there are more deer running down deserted Main Street, Chernobyl, than there are dodging buses in London's streets. If even just one deer managed to survive in Chernobyl, it probably would be one more than you'll find in a relatively healthy, busy town, where larger beasts (deer, for example) are kept out to make way for manicured lawns and prize roses and fluffy kittens. We know that's a problem for wildlife in general and deer in particular, but we also know it's fairly reversible and that, other than the problem of dolts putting insecticides and herbicides on their lawns and gardens, it's fairly neutral to the plants and animals that do exist there.

Is Chernobyl any sort of healthy environment for the remaining plants and animals? If, like the birds, the general animal population has a two-thirds survival rate, is it a healthy population? How many animals were born unviable there? How many with mutations? How long do they live? Do they pass on their mutations? Do they glow in the dark and walk through walls and communicate telepathically with the dead? Studies must be done before I'll be comfortable thinking about the happy, happy animals that romp in idyllic Chernobyl and read my mind.
posted by pracowity at 3:58 AM on August 28, 2007


But the Bloodsucker and Snork populations are thriving!
posted by PontifexPrimus at 4:10 AM on August 28, 2007


I think it's a perfectly reasonable comparison. I'm comparing Chernobyl before and after the accident, that's about the most direct comparison I can think of.

There's almost certainly a higher rate of mutation and probably radiation-related illness in the animals around Chernobyl. I'd be surprised if there weren't. But a large thriving population of animals with a few sick ones is a lot better than no population at all.

The issue is that whereas Chernobyl is almost always thought of as an appalling and horrific disaster, it's actually generally been a good thing for the wildlife of the region. Certainly, from the point of view of the wildlife and ecology of the area, the Chernobyl accident seems to have been nowhere near as disastrous or destructive as, for instance, a new housing development. But whereas we are very easily convinced of the horrors that the demon radiation might bring down upon nature, we're usually completely blind to the much more serious everyday disasters that we cause.

Your posting makes my point for me I think :
We know that's a problem for wildlife in general and deer in particular, but we also know it's fairly reversible and that, other than the problem of dolts putting insecticides and herbicides on their lawns and gardens, it's fairly neutral to the plants and animals that do exist there.

Really - the presence of humans in an area is not at all "neutral" to the plants and animals there. In most cases it's resolved simply by the mass extinction (or if they're lucky, displacement) of anything that happens to be in the way.

It's incredibly anthropocentric to be able to look at Chernobyl and call it a disaster for the wildlife there, while not realising that much worse disasters (for the ecology of the area) take place every day around the world.
posted by silence at 4:45 AM on August 28, 2007


posted by stbalbach
Abstract: "Elevated frequency of abnormalities in barn swallows from Chernobyl", Biology Letters, Volume 3, Number 4 / August 22, 2007


posted by quin
we could have walled off bits of Africa and just said "Whoops, we dropped a couple of nukes in that area"


So then ... it would matter if they were African or European swallows?
posted by duncan42 at 4:46 AM on August 28, 2007


I think the point is that in general humans are a lot more dangerous to most wildlife than nuclear radiation.
posted by dinsdale at 8:24 AM on August 28, 2007


City dwellers - have you looked around you recently seen much animal life ?

I sort of get you, but on the other hand, my neighborhood in south Minneapolis is like a fucking wildlife refuge with the squirrels and raccoons; we have a very healthy bird population (I see three or four mourning doves every time I walk my dog), and deer aren't unheard of (and they're kind of a problem out in the suburbs). Some wildlife can do just fine around humans.
posted by COBRA! at 8:53 AM on August 28, 2007


Chernobyl is far from a wildlife paradise

I'm with silence -- it seems to me that the animals in Chernobyl are much better off than they were before the accident, and also much better off than most animals in other places are. Better yet, their habitat will probably be free of humans for hundreds if not thousands of years to come, and that's more than just about any other animal on Earth can claim.

Some A tiny minority of wildlife can do just fine around humans.

Fixed that for you. For every species that can survive alongside large-scale human habitation, hundreds can't. I'm not really looking forward to a future in which "wildlife" consists of rats, ravens, and whitetail deer.
posted by vorfeed at 9:36 AM on August 28, 2007


Wormwood Forest is an interesting book on this subject. The author interviews scientists working in the Zone of Alienation (many of whom are studying faunal populations) and some of the squatters living there as well. It's true that not all populations are exploding; insects like mayflies that have a long period living in the soil before being able to reproduce are struggling in the Zone. However, there are plenty of animals whose populations are iincreasing. Yes, these animals are radioactive and they are eating other radioactive animals, but they are thriving. Unfortunately, funding for many of the scientific studies will or has run out, as has funding for a lot of the projects intended to keep the radiation from spreading even further.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:07 AM on August 28, 2007


One of the contentions of the study, if you read the abstract between the lines, is to contest the Russian governments official stance that increases in mortality among human populations are caused by "stress" and not radiation - as the study says, the animals are dieing off from radiation yet they are not under "stress", in fact they live in a great environment (radiation excluded).

Radiation politics is very tricky. If someone gets cancer, well, what causes Mr. Smith to have cancer? No one knows. People were getting cancer before Chernobyl. So it's very easy for the powers that be to under-estimate the damages and impacts and essentially take no responsibility for it. The same thing has happened in the US from the A-bomb experiments in Utah and Nevada during the 1950s and 60s.
posted by stbalbach at 11:35 AM on August 28, 2007


FACT: Troll.
posted by fandango_matt at 2:16 AM on August 28
FACT: Radiation will burn, maim and kill human and most animal life (example).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:22 AM on August 28
Way to miss the joke, guys.
posted by stavrogin at 3:17 AM on August 28


FACT: Trolls like to eat two-headed pigeons. Preferably with horseradish sauce. It's very gross.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:46 PM on August 28, 2007


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