Chernobyl Trees Don’t Rot Right

Almost three decades after the nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, animals and plants display significant changes in structure and physiology and high levels of radiation. And another effect of the disaster may spell trouble in the future.  

According to a new study published in Oecologia, decomposers—organisms such as microbes, fungi and some types of insects that drive the process of decay—have also suffered from the contamination. These creatures are responsible for an essential component of any ecosystem: recycling organic matter back into the soil. Issues with such a basic-level process, the authors of the study think, could have compounding effects for the entire ecosystem.

The team decided to investigate this question in part because of a peculiar field observation. “We have conducted research in Chernobyl since 1991 and have noticed a significant accumulation of litter over time,” the write. Moreover, trees in the infamous Red Forest—an area where all of the pine trees turned a reddish color and then died shortly after the accident—did not seem to be decaying, even 15 to 20 years after the meltdown.

“Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them,” says Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and lead author of the study. “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.”

They conducted an experiment by bringing in leaves from non-contaminated areas to see how they decayed. After a year, the level of decay corresponded with the amount of radiation in the area in which they were placed (shown on map). This inhibition of a natural process has several implications. Nutrients are not being returned to the soil, which affects future plant growth. But more importantly, forest litter is a fire hazard.

Fires can potentially redistribute radioactive contaminants to places outside of the exclusion zone, Mousseau says. “There is growing concern that there could be a catastrophic fire in the coming years,” he says.

Who knows what other effects the lack of microbial species could have? Read more about the research at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: Mousseau et al., Oecologia)


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A corollary would be the ongoing Fukushima radiation leaking into the Pacific, will we not see similar upset in the basic processes at the microbial level around the plant, and even further away with the ocean current moving the radiation throughout the world?

We might have already screwed the pooch.
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So then if that were to work ok, would it work to import some functional microbes to the contaminated areas? Historically, importing living organisms to a non-native area hasn't had good long-term success but I wonder how it would work in this sort of situation. And why it's not being tried...
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That should be done, but I would lay money on it turning out okay. The problem with the Chernobyl trees appears to be the lack of microbes, not the leaves' effect on microbes.
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