After one of the world's greatest catastrophes - the Chornobyl accident, a "dead zone" was formed in the centre of Europe, the size of the territory of the state of Luxembourg, or the American state of Rhode Island - 2600 km.
This was because many radionuclides were released into the atmosphere after the accident, and this area showed significant radioactive contamination. Although a substantial part of the elements fell on radioactive gases with a very short half-life and their contribution to the radiation environment was minimal in a few days. Among the decay products released into the atmosphere were: uranium-234, 235, 236 and thorium-230 and 232. Their half-life ranges from 75 thousand years to ten billion years.
Therefore, an unprecedented evacuation of the population on a scale of peacetime was carried out, economic activity was curtailed, and industrial and agricultural enterprises were closed. And in 1986, after the evacuation of the population from the 30-kilometre zone around the station, it was decided to create the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.
The Exclusion Zone is the heart of the Ukrainian Polissya with its flat relief, hills, numerous rivers and swamps. And, of course, dense, impenetrable forests. However, before the accident, it was one of the most developed parts of Polissya. Thirty-five years after the accident - the fields are slowly overgrown with forest, houses and buildings - are in a state of emergency, young trees are getting taller every year, and villages and hamlets are turning into thick bushes. The result is the restoration of fauna and flora.
Almost 100 years ago, Academician Volodymyr Vernadsky focused on such property of wildlife as the capture of free space in his teaching on the biosphere. Artificial objects that fall out of the cultural environment are transformed into objects of destruction: rural settlements and infrastructure are absorbed by vegetation.
The second, unusual for this geographical area landscape - fallows. They appeared on the site of agricultural land. Before the accident, their area was almost a third of the modern territory of the zone. The presence of fallows prompted scientists to experiment with creating a free population of Przewalski's horses in the zone.
The area is remembered not only by the gaping mouths of the cold Pripyat entrances and empty streets; not only broken windows, through the broken windows of which the fresh Polissya wind drives. The area captures the most remote corners of our memory with brilliant emeralds of endless greenery.
Jungle! This is how the guests of the zone described it and will describe it in the future. And not in vain. The vegetation here is vibrant: travellers from different parts of the world are constantly talking about it. Of course, the overgrown villages and the abandoned city of Pripyat impress them the most, and the space between them is an absolute joy for those who love the nature reserve. Vegetation more than half consists of forests, the rest - overgrown grasses, shrubs and young trees, fields, meadows and swamps. However, suppose you move a little further from the roads. In that case, you get the impression that almost the entire zone is one continuous, endless swamp, over which hung birches, pines, alders and oaks, which in 60 years have turned from young seedlings into a dense, impenetrable forest.
There are more than 1,200 species of plants, 200 species of mosses and 120 species of lichens in the Exclusion Zone. Of these, almost 100 species need protection as rare. A number of them are included in the European Red List. Their generalization was carried out by botanist Mykhailo Petrov - a dedicated researcher of the zone - in his fundamental work "Botanical and Geographical Studies of the Chornobyl Zone".
Changes in the flora of the Exclusion Zone were mainly not caused by radiation. The accident killed only the pine forests near the station, which were exposed to the highest doses of radiation, also known as the Red Forest. This name comes from the specific colour of the dead needles. Due to the danger of fires, about half of this forest was buried underground. Today, the territory of the Red Forest is artificially and naturally forested with young pines and birches. Researchers use it as a unique natural landfill for radioecological and radiobiological experiments.
The main problem in the first few years after the accident was fires: the zone burned forests area of about a quarter of Kyiv. Even the specialized forest enterprise was created to manage forest resources "Chornobyllis". Now the Zone is slowly turning into a real jungle. Grasses, trees and bushes now abound in meadows and abandoned fields. Restoration processes transform the forest from geometrically perfect pine plantations into a real wild Polissya forest with various trees, grasses and shrubs. This process continues, as does the forest's attack on the remains of buildings and agricultural infrastructure.
In the Exclusion Zone, wild animals impress with their numbers and diversity. Without going into scientific details, we can say that the Zone is a reserve of European forest fauna. There are such iconic species of animals as wolf, bear, lynx, badger, deer, elk, wild boar and roe deer. In total, about 300 species of vertebrates have been registered. Specialists are only guessing about another 100 species, still not having found them for sure.
The animals listed in the Red Book of Ukraine number more than 50 species, of which 17 have been proven to exist within the Zone. Of the fish, it is the river lamprey, of the mammals, the badger, the river otter and the lynx; of the birds - black stork, gogol, osprey, red shulika, white-tailed eagle, tremendous and small eagle, snake-eater, gray crane, lezhen, sandpiper, owl and gray shrike.
There are two points of view: "Exclusion Zone is a paradise for wildlife" and "Exclusion Zone is hell for wildlife."
The first one could draw the following conclusion: "There are many, many animals in the area, as many as in the safari park." This is not entirely true. There are a lot of animals here, but instead, we can talk about just enough for such an area.
The second point of view about hell is a widespread expectation. Everyone knows that radiation in high doses harms biological objects. However, current levels of exposure are far from leading to the total or selective destruction of natural things. That is, do not expect to see a radioactive desert or a reserve of mutants.
In addition, there is also the opinion that radiation has a particularly negative impact on ecosystems and to detect it, you need to use a scientific method. Dr Tim Musso defends this position. The secret of his scientific approach is quite simple: all the observations and results he obtained in the Exclusion Zone, he interprets only from the standpoint of radiation. It's almost like a Rorschach test. The whole sum of environmental factors, complexity and variability of indicators of biological objects is reduced to a relatively simple and even somewhat primitive scheme. In this simple way, Tim Musso has created his ecological antiworld, which is filled with exotic pathologies, more than completely.
The vast majority of scientists call the main factor in the reproduction of wildlife evacuation and curtailment of economic activity. In a short time, man liberated a vast space, which gradually inhabited wild animals. The formation of wildlife after the accident occurred in several stages:
The first stage is two or three months after the accident, when the radiation significantly affects the fauna. The number of rodents in the near Chernobyl Zone decreased three to five times. The death of certain species of birds and the appearance of domestic animals (cats, dogs) with signs of radiation damage were recorded.
The second stage lasted until the end of 1991. During this period, the type species of settlements disappeared: grey pigeon, house mouse, city swallow. In 1987, an outbreak of murine rodents in the fields and an increase in the number of large mammals and birds of the wetland complex were recorded.
From 1992 to the present, the third stage is characterized by the gradual reproduction and stabilization of populations. Further development of fauna depends on the processes of vegetation development. Gradual afforestation will lead to an increase in the number of forest species.
Is there an adverse effect of radiation on animals? Undoubtedly, there is. However, the gains from depopulation are generally more important than the losses from radiation. For example, researchers of predators completely ignore the radiation factor in their work. But the Exclusion Zone also has several "hot spots" with high levels of radioactive contamination, where the same scientists are studying the effects of radiation on living organisms and ecosystems. It is the Red Forest, a nearby area and many lakes on the northern trail of falls.
Respective institutions of the Exclusion Zone carry out studies of fauna and flora: International Radioecological Laboratory, Chornobyl Center, Institute of Hydrobiology of NASU, Institute of Zoology of NASU, Faculty of Biology of Taras Shevchenko National University, National University of Biological Resources and Nature Management.