Chernobyl Leaf Litter does not Decay

There was a recent post in the Smithsonian about the long term effects on the environment around Chernobyl.

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.

“The gist of our results was that the radiation inhibited microbial decomposition of the leaf litter on the top layer of the soil,” Mousseau says. This means that nutrients aren’t being efficiently returned to the soil, he adds, which could be one of the causes behind the slower rates of tree growth surrounding Chernobyl.

the Chernobyl area is at risk of fire, and 27 years’ worth of leaf litter, Mousseau and his colleagues think, would likely make a good fuel source for such a forest fire. This poses a more worrying problem than just environmental destruction: 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.

For some disasters, most of  the damage has been done at the time of the event: think of a flood or a forest fire.   What seems to be different about nuclear catastrophes is that they have no end.   Damage accumulates over time and is often unforeseeable.  Who would have imagined that the disaster at Chernobyl could literally be re-ignited decades later if there happened to be a forest fire in the exclusion zone?  There no longer is an infra-structure to provide the fire fighting equipment.

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