What lasting effects can be seen on the environment decades after a nuclear disaster? We’re only just beginning to find out in the case of Chernobyl, the catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred in 1986 in Ukraine. The worst nuclear power plant accident in history in terms of cost and resulting deaths, the disaster also caused cancer and deformities in humans and animals, and had a devastating effect on the ecosystem in the area.
Nearly 30 years later, as cleanup continues and most of the area remains sealed off, scientists have discovered a new and troubling phenomenon. Trees and plant litter in Chernobyl aren’t decaying at the rates they should be, leading to massive piles of dead organic matter on the forest floor.
That’s because the insects, microbes, fungi and slime molds that nature puts to work on dead matter to help it decompose aren’t present in the woods of Chernobyl in the proper balance. Radioactive contamination had a devastating effect, reducing or altogether obliterating the densities of invertebrates and microorganisms in the soil.
This also partially explains why trees in the area around Chernobyl grow at a slower rate than normal, since vital nutrients from decaying plant matter aren’t going back into the soil. Other lasting effects include contaminated soil and water, an increase in animal mortality and a decrease in reproduction. However, wildlife has surprisingly flourished in some parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, with species like lynx, eagle owls and horses breeding freely thanks to the lack of human activity in the area.