For most, the memory and images of the Chernobyl disaster conjure up the idea of a post apocalyptic wasteland. The derelict buildings that decay on the skyline and the abandoned cars that litter the streets make it easy to imagine this scenario as a reality. Radioecology expert Tom Hinton however, has a different view. To him, this area is filled with the sounds of nature. Birds chirping, wolves howling, everything you’d come to expect from rural Ukraine, with the notable exception of humans. In fact, to him, it’s almost like he’s gone back in time to a primordial era.
Almost 30 years ago, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, in which an explosion and fire released an unprecedented amount of nuclear fallout into the surrounding area, eradicated all human presence in the 1600 square mile area of land near the Ukraine-Belarus border. Dozens were killed and more than 100 000 people were forced to evacuate the area. From that point on there has been a complete lack of human presence in or around the site of the disaster. If was onto go to the site, today, however, they would not be alone.
Today, according to a study published in the journal Current Biology, the population of mammals is high. Higher, in fact, than is some of the most protected parks in Belarus. So how is it possible that animals could be thriving in a land that would is so dangerous for humans? It would appear that the whatever damage that was caused by the nuclear fallout was more than compensated for by the lack of humans. Without a human population to contend and deal with, that low post disaster population of animals in 1987 nearly doubled just a mere 10 years later, and the growth didn’t stop there. By 2010, an on foot census determined that the population of wolves in the area had grown sevenfold.
This specific population growth can be seen as a good sign, since the wolves are an apex predator, meaning that their food sources (deer and elk) must be healthy, indicating a strong food chain all the way down to the insects.
The area is still dangerous though. Hinton and his team didn’t study the animals on an individual or molecular level, which would have surely felt the effects of such a large dump of toxic fallout. He can, however, conclude that while individual animals might be feeling the diverse effects of the radiation, the species population as a whole are holding steady, with no major numbers of deaths.
The environment is resilient, and for the time being the exclusion zone can be seen as less of a wasteland, and more of a national park without people, it’s remnants of the now ghost town waiting for nature to take the land back.