Dead forests in radiation zone of Chernobyl won’t decompose

Almost three decades after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, dead forests in the immediate radiation zone are still not decaying. Researchers say that this shows a disturbing facet of long-term radiation exposure that is little considered – how radiation impacts the process of decomposition.

According to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Oecologia forest around Chernobyl, particularly the infamous Red Forest – have shown little sign of decay since they first died nearly 30 years ago. This could be due to the fact that microbes and fungi have not recovered well from radiation contamination in the area.

The researchers involved in this latest study have been conducting analysis on environmental changes in the irradiated area since 1991, and have “noticed a significant accumulation of littler over time” – namely leaves and other dead brush that would normally decay in the course of a few years.

This observation prompted the researchers to launch a more extensive study of decomposition rates, especially in the Red Forest – a pine forest that tuned a reddish color and died almost immediately following the Chernobyl incident.

“Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them,” lead author Timothy Mousseau said in a Smithsonian release. “It was striking, given that in the forests where I live, a fallen tree is mostly sawdust after a decade of lying on the ground.”

To fully measure decomposition rates in Chernobyl forests, the researchers made around 400 mesh bags containing leaves and other dead brush collected at an uncontaminated site. After making sure these bags did not contain insects and other small decomposers from the uncontaminated region, the researchers left the bags in various parts of Chernobyl where radiation levels varied.

The results spoke for themselves. After a year, 70 to 90 percent of the leaves had decomposed into nothing in areas with little-to-no radiation. In still irradiated areas however, 60 percent or more of the leaves remained.

According to the researchers, this is worrying. It shows that the radiation affected microbes and fungi severely, and is preventing natural decomposition, even after bush plants and other small trees have begun to grow once more in the region. The result is building dead brush over decades – the potential kindling for a catastrophic forest fire in the future if decomposition rates do not correct themselves.

Thanks to Ray Gaudette for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

9 lousy places for a vacation

1. Buford, Wyoming
1 -  Buford
Formerly sporting a bustling population of two, Buford now only has a single resident.

2. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
2 - garbage
The Patch is a basically immobile, gigantic mass of trash out in the middle of the Pacific. Most estimates put its size—composed entirely of plastic bottles, chemical sludge, and basically any other kind of debris you can imagine—larger than the state of Texas. You’d probably rather go to Texas.

3. Alnwick Poison Garden, England
3 - posion gardcen
The Alnwick Poison Garden is pretty much what you’d think it is: a garden full of plants that can kill you (among many other things). Some of the plants are so dangerous that they have to be kept behind bars. It’s not exactly your typical stroll through a botanical garden.

4. Ramree Island, Burma
4 - bur,a
Ramree Island may be in the beautiful Burma, but nothing about this place is beautiful. It’s actually just a giant swamp full of thousands of saltwater crocodiles—which are the deadliest in the world—plus mosquitos loaded with malaria, oh, and venomous scorpions. Also, there was a six-week long battle here during WWII, in which only twenty Japanese soliders survived… out of 1000. And most were killed by the wildlife.

5. The Zone of Alienation, Ukraine
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Although you probably wouldn’t want to vacation in Pripyat either, the Zone of Alienation is the 19-mile decommissioned perimeter surrounding the grounds of the Chernobyl incident. It’s administered by a branch of government specifically so that no-one is allowed into it, but there are a few hundred residents who refused to move. What’s wrong with those people? You probably don’t want to know

6. Ilha de Queimada Grande, Brazil
6 - brazil
Sorry to tell you this, but Ilha de Queimada Grande isn’t a fantastical island getaway. It’s actually an island full of thousands of snakes. Its name literally means, “Snake Island.” It has the highest concentration of snakes in the world, with 1-5 golden lanceheads per square meter—oh, and they’re very poisonous: when designs were drawn up to build a plantation on the island, all the scouts were killed.

7. St. Helena
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If you somehow end up in the same place where Napoleon was imprisoned and spent his final days, things are probably going wrong. Oh yeah, and there’s no functioning airport, either. The only way you can get on or off the island is via container ships from South Africa. Which only come every few months.

8. Izu Island, Japan
8 - japan
The Izus are a group of volcanic islands located off the southern coast of Japan’s Honshu island. They’re technically part of Tokyo, except because they’re extremely volcanic, the air constantly smells of sulfur and residents have been evacuated twice—in 1953 and 2000—because of “dangerously high levels of gas.” Although allowed back in 2005, inhabitants are now required to carry gas masks on their person at all times.

9. Mud Volcanoes of Azerbaijan
9 - mud volcano
Sure, mud volcanoes aren’t nearly as dangerous as their cousins of the magmatic variety, but when they do actually erupt, it’s not exactly a pretty sight. In 2001, a new island grew out of the Caspian Sea, due to an increase in volcanic activity—right nearby where hundreds of these bad boys are. Generally, they go off every twenty years, and when they do, they shoot flames “hundreds of meters into the sky” and deposit tons of mud into the immediate area.