Chernobyl has become a byword for nuclear disaster and the dangers of radiation poisoning.
But 33 years after the accident, the exclusion zone that still exists around the plant has seemingly become a thriving habitat for animal species.
Following the disaster on April 26, 1986 around 350,000 people were evacuated from the 1,000-square mile exclusion zone in Ukraine. To date, no-one has returned.
The result is a wilderness untouched by humans for over three decades.
Researchers have begun to take an interest in how the area is developing. It was assumed that nothing would be able to survive the high levels of radiation, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The TREE (TRansfer-Exposure-Effects) project, led by Nick Beresford, from the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, set up 42 motion-tripped cameras in the exclusion zone.
The project has been monitoring animals in the environment for years and has captured evidence of large mammals like brown bears, bison, wolves, lynxes and horses in the area.
‘The CEZ (Chernobyl Exclusion Zone) could be the best area in Ukraine where a large free population of the European bison could be established,’ wrote one of the project’s Ukrainian collaborators in a study explaining their findings.
Another researcher, Germán Orizaola, who studies amphibians in the exclusion zone, says there seems to be relatively little effect of the current radiation levels on the animals and plants around Chernobyl.
‘Our own work with the amphibians of Chernobyl has also detected abundant populations across the exclusion zone, even on the more contaminated areas,’ he wrote in The Conversation.
‘Furthermore, we have also found signs that could represent adaptive responses to life with radiation. For instance, frogs within the exclusion zone are darker than frogs living outside it, which is a possible defence against radiation.’
Today, human tourists can visit Chernobyl and the nearby Pripyat as long as they have a tour guide and follow the proper authorisation procedures.
Radiation is still a real threat (the accident leaked 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima explosion into the area) but researchers say the wilderness it created should be used for future study.
‘Over the past 33 years, Chernobyl has gone from the being considered a potential desert for life to being an area of high interest for biodiversity conservation,’ writes Orizaola.
‘It may sound strange, but now we need to work to maintain the integrity of the exclusion zone as a nature reserve if we want to guarantee that in the future Chernobyl will remain a refuge for wildlife.’
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