Scientist Smackdown: Is Chernobyl Animal Dead Zone or Post-Apocalyptic Eden?

By Eliza Strickland | March 25, 2009 11:50 am

ChernobylThe blast that shook the Chernobyl nuclear power plant more than 20 years ago, sending a highly radioactive plume of fallout into the air, still affects local populations of butterflies and bees and other insects, according to a new study. The study appears to argue against the idea put forward by previous researchers that the region around the power plant, contaminated by radiation and off limits to most humans, has become a sort of post-apocalyptic Eden [The New York Times], in which animals can live unmolested. However, the new results are stirring up controversy.

A pair of researchers conducted standard surveys in forests around Chernobyl over three springs from 2006 to 2008, noting the numbers of bumblebees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies and spider webs at points with radiation levels that varied over four orders of magnitude [The New York Times]. They found that the number of bugs declined as the radiation increased, and that even relatively low levels of radiation impacted insect populations. The researchers say insects may be particularly vulnerable because radiation is usually found in the top layer of soil, where many invertebrates spend time during either their egg, larvae, or adult phases.

Study coauthor Timothy Mousseau has been working for almost a decade in the exclusion zone. This is the contaminated area surrounding the plant that was evacuated after the explosion, that remains effectively free of modern human habitation [BBC News]. With his colleague Anders Pape Moller he has also published work showing that bird populations have declined in areas of high radiation around Chernobyl, and the two are currently studying wolf, fox, rabbit, and squirrel populations in the area. But the new insect study, published in the j0urnal Biology Letters, provoked a response from the pair’s loudest detractor.

Dr Sergii Gashchak, a researcher at the Chornobyl [sic] Center in Ukraine, dismissed the findings. He said that he drew “opposite conclusions” from the same data the team collected on birds. “Wildlife really thrives in Chernobyl area – due to the low level of [human] influence” [BBC News], he says.

Gashchack also claims that the two researchers are driven by an ideological crusade. “They have an idea to show by any means that radiation has exclusively negative effects,” Gaschak says, “That’s it. Truth is not their target.” Mousseau denies Gaschak’s charges, claiming that Gaschak’s interpretation has been colored by his own self-interest. “Sergey has been struggling for the last 20 years to maintain gainful employment,” Mousseau says, noting that Gaschak is determined to preserve the Chernobyl zone in the Ukraine as a wildlife refuge where he can continue to work [Scientific American].

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Image: flickr / Fi Dot

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Nick

    You spelled his name Sergii the first time and Sergey the second time. 😉

  • Eliza Strickland

    It wasn’t me — it was the sources I was quoting! BBC and Scientific American disagree on how to translate the Cyrillic alphabet, I guess. And since I’m no expert either, I decided to let the discrepancy stand.

  • Mary Mycio

    While this particular study is new, it is not news that insects — especially those whose larvae develop in the soil — are vulnerable to radiation. I don’t think that anyone has ever seriously asserted that ALL species are doing fine in Chernobyl. But it is also incorrect to extrapolate from insects to large animals which are, in fact, doing quite well in the exclusion zone. Indeed, it will be interesting to see the results of Mousseau’s large animal studies when they are published.

    Mousseau’s comments about Sergei Gashchak are particularly distasteful, given that Gashchak’s own research demonstrated that songbirds do not do well in highly radioactive areas such as the Red Forest. Other Ukrainian researchers have also noted high radiation’s negative impact on invertebrates. But having traveled to the exclusion zone more than 25 times to research my book: Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, I have always been struck by the scientists’ dedication to their work.

    It is something I would hope would command respect. Instead, Mousseau accuses Gashchak of self-interest in wanting to continue to work, while the same can in fact be said of Mousseau, or any other scientist. And that doesn’t sound like a debate about science at all.

  • Tim Mousseau

    I don’t do a lot of “blogging” so I apologize if I am not following etiquette by commenting on a blog about my own work. But given the number of inaccuracies and exaggerations I feel compelled to make a small attempt to set things straight.

    Sergey G. is a dedicated,wonderful naturalist who has been largely supported by working as a hired hand for DOE and IAEA funded researchers as well as journalists and tv film makers looking for a guide in the zone. He has worked for me and he has worked for Mary M. He collected a portion of the data for one of our papers on great tits nesting in the exclusion zone, but has not analyzed any of our data. His disagreement with our conclusions is based on his emotional (or other) response and not on any statistical treatment. It is inappropriate for him to suggest or imply that he has worked with our data and come to a different conclusion. This is not true and he should be censured for such comments (assuming he actually made them). Sergey has not published any papers on the topic of animal distribution, abundance or biodiversity in the Chernobyl zone. He has published other papers on radiation related topics, dispelling the notion that a lack of funding has precluded him from collecting relevant data in support of his completely unsubstantiated claims concerning animal abundances in the zone. Actually, Sergey has probably been among the best funded ecologists in Ukraine with many grants from the west to his credit. Sergey has no credentials to discuss this topic beyond those of any journalist or tourist visiting the zone. i.e. he, like several others, are expressing their OPINIONS based on their subjective perspectives. Opinions are very different from controlled observations and published results from a scientific study. He should be respected for his dedication to rebuilding Ukraine but in the absence of peer reviewed scientific publications, he should not be considered a credible player in this discussion. We must set a minimum standard for information in a scientific forum and I would argue that peer reviewed scientific publications set the threshold for inclusion.

    Similarly, not to put too fine a point on this, just because one has visited Paris 25 times and toured the local bookstores doesn’t mean one can discuss French literature. For one, to be a credible discussant one must have studied the language, literature and culture.

    Bottom line: We should at least attempt to be intelligent and impartial in our discussions of this important topic.

  • Eliza Strickland

    We’re glad to have both your comments, Mary and Tim. I’m no expert on the wildlife surrounding Chernobyl, so I simply tried to present both sides of the argument in the blog post.

    My editor asked a interesting question that I didn’t have an answer for. Tim, as I understand it radiation levels varied widely inside the exclusion zone, and your recent study showed that the higher the radiation, the fewer invertebrates. But has anyone looked at how invertebrates (or birds, or any other animals) are doing in the exclusion zone as a whole, and compared that to an equivalent area that’s populated by humans?

  • Mary Mycio

    Eliza, I realize that your question was directed to Tim and not me. While I look forward to his response, I wanted to make some clarifications and comments on his post.

    Sergey Gashchak never worked for me. I met him a few times, but my guides were other people. I did, however, meet with and interview dozens of scientists. Hence, I’m not entirely sure about what Tim meant when he wrote: “..just because one has visited Paris 25 times and toured the local bookstores doesn’t mean one can discuss French literature.”

    My comment about visiting Chernobyl over 25 times was in the context of admiring the scientists’ dedication. Being fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, I was able to communicate with them directly and spent more than one evening with them in social settings. I think that is a sufficient qualification to assess their devotion to their work.

    I read Sergey’s paper about Great Tits in the Red Forest in a Ukrainian scientific journal. There are several Ukrainian periodicals (written in Russian and Ukrainian) devoted to Chernobyl studies. I read as much as I could to research my book. I also read everything that was available in English. I am not a scientist, but have a bachelor’s degree in biology as well as a law degree. I worked for several years as a patent lawyer specializing in biotechnology.

    Peer-reviewed scientific papers are, of course, invaluable in any field. But I do not believe that the day-to-day experiences of people who are on the ground there, all of the time, should be dismissed. Limiting scientific discussion only to those who have published peer-reviewed studies about Chernobyl wildlife would narrow the pool to only a few individuals – there simply isn’t that much funding available — and I’m not sure how productive such debates would be. As an example, Chernobyllis, the forestry service, conducts regular animal counts based on reports from their rangers. Are those to be dismissed because forest rangers should have Ph.Ds in order to count moose?

    I should also add that I lived in Ukraine for 16 years and traveled there extensively. While I realize this is anecdotal, I can attest to having seen more wildlife in Chernobyl than anywhere else in the country. That is why I am interested in Tim’s large animal studies (which I read about somewhere else), and hope that they cover the entire territory of the Zone of Alienation and not only the most contaminated patches. It would truly be wonderful if those studies extended into the Belarus portions of the zone but I understand the political – and financial — difficulties that may entail.

    Lastly, I suspect that Sergey’s quote (and Tim is correct to question if that is what he actually said) may have had something lost in translation, both in the question and the answer. Judging by the news stories, Tim’s study of invertebrates — which are technically “animals” – is being extrapolated to what most laypersons think of as mammals, or at least vertebrates. I’m not sure what language Sergey was interviewed in, or in what language he responded. My recollection is that his English is fair but not fluent. In any case, a misunderstanding about what was meant by the word “animals” may be the source of this conflict.

  • free smiley emoticons

    I merely added your website to my favorite features. I really like reading you. Thanks!

  • edward church

    Its a very good discussion on the Ukraine . Because what has happen there. in a way this place tells us about the pros and cons after Chernobyl ” but can any one define about the wild life if the deer or fox and moose have any radiation of contamination and also plant life that is on the ground . I am very interested in this about what had happen. What is the long life of Nuclear radiation?

  • lyllyth

    I would like to thank Tim Mousseau and Mary Mycio for their perspectives.

    Chernobyl happened in my childhood, half a world away, but continues to pique my curiosity to this day.

    It would be interesting if there could be a study done on different species at a larger classification level; perhaps at the Order or Family level, or if this were impractical, at an ecological niche level. It would be good to have comparative controls in both an urban, human-influenced environment (Chicago? St. Petersburg?) and a pristine Wildlife park (Alaskan ANWR? Kamchatka Peninsula?).

    This may be a step in providing a more consistent answer.

  • Mary Mycio

    My goodness, the comments on this article are still active. It seems that five years ago, my work got the attention and now Tim’s work is getting the attention. Tit-for-tat, Tim, and thank you for at least acknowledging my book in your earlier articles. If my work is simplified, it would seem that Tim’s work contradicts it. But as I said above, I never asserted that all species are thriving.

    Tim’s work has what I consider to be serious flaws and I have pointed them out to him privately in the past. In all of the recent media articles about him, I have not seen any evidence that he has addressed them. I’ve been busy with other work but have been planning for some time to — again — challenge his claims. It looks like that time has come.

    That said, it is a shame that there is so little funding for research and informed debate about the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of radiation that Chernobyl studies can provide. My hope is that one silver lining of the Fukushima disaster is that it will renew interest in the subject. My suspicion is that governments and nuclear industries will not provide the funding the subject deserves.

    In the meantime, Tim and I (and the Texas Tech guys, plus Serge Gashchak) can continue what I hope will be a courteous discussion.

  • Mary Mycio

    lylyth, there is so much that needs to be studied, and no money to do it.
    But now that I’m reading the thread, I see that Tim mentioned studies of larger animal populations in the zone and I haven’t seen any results of those studies.
    Tim, if you are following this thread, let us know what the status is.

  • science be damned

    Tim, Tim?!

    Hello, is this thing on?

    In any case, the evidence shows that far from the thousands of years that the land was predicted to be uninhabitable, we can measure the rate of environmental rehabilitation from this catastrophic event in years and decades.
    Unfortunately, the psychological scars that get reopened every time disaster terms get bandied about will take far, far longer to heal.

    It is all about the politics of fear.


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