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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: 
How has wildlife been affected around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Russia three decades ago? - Walter Scinto, Hartford, CT
 
The Chernobyl disaster confirmed everyone’s worst nightmares about the awesome power of nuclear reactions. When the Ukrainian reactor collapsed, the radioactive fallout profoundly contaminated the surrounding environment, affecting any living beings located within the so-called “Exclusion Zone” of 30 kilometers around the reactor’s shell. Acute radiation poisoning annihilated a large pine stand, since renamed “the Red Forest,” while many animals suffered significant physical or mental abnormalities.

Invertebrates in the area suffered particularly dramatic population crashes, as most radioactive material resides in the topsoil layer where such insects survive and reproduce. Even apparently healthy wildlife was forbidden from resale because of the dangerous levels of radioactivity.  The dangers of radiation led to a government-mandated eviction of the radioactive territory soon after the 1986 explosion.

However, 30 years of isolation from humans has proven to be the most beneficial consequence of the disaster. After the initial devastation of the radioactive fallout, species began to adapt to the higher levels of radiation. Indeed, species diversity and populations are actually healthier now than in most other forests in Eastern Europe. This recognition from the Ukrainian government led to the Exclusion Zone’s establishment as one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in Europe in 2007. Some rare and endangered species, including lynx and the European bison, have returned to the area and can be found in higher densities than in radiation-free forests. Even the Przewalski’s Horse, extinct in the area and artificially reintroduced to the Exclusion Zone in the 1990s, has flourished; the population has reached stability and is even starting to spread out beyond the protective fencing of the Zone.

The question remains of how these animals are able to sustain such high levels of radiation without succumbing to its deadly effects. Recent studies of the Chernobyl region by wildlife biologists Anders Pape Møller and Timothy Mousseau have identified serious consequences of radiation, even within thriving populations. Mutations among affected Exclusion Zone species include higher rates of cataracts, partial albinism, and physical variation. However, it appears the deadly mutations took their toll on populations immediately. Subsequent surviving generations have shown amazing adaptability.

Møller and Mousseau conclude that while radiation is inarguably bad for the environment, its impact on wildlife is far overshadowed by the effects of typical human development. While no one would have wished for the Chernobyl meltdown, environmentalists point out the silver lining of being able to monitor wildlife population in the absence of human populations and activities. 

Chernobyl is a primary example of ecosystem resilience as capable of overcoming radioactive devastation — and can teach us all a lesson about the importance of setting aside at least some wild areas just for wildlife. Furthermore, the experiences at Chernobyl and in the intervening years illustrate the benefits of preservation over conservation. While conservationists encourage sustainable use of natural resources as optimal for wildlife health, Chernobyl shows the incredible benefits to wildlife of just leaving vast swaths of land alone and letting the animals just get on with their lives.

CONTACTS: “Animals Rule Chernobyl 30 Years After Nuclear Disaster,” news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/060418-chernobyl-wildlife-thirty-year-anniversary-science/; “Wolves in Chernobyl Dead Zone,” documentaryheaven.com/wolves-in-chernobyl-dead-zone/.
 

Dear EarthTalk: 
What kinds of changes to federal environmental policies can we expect to see from Donald Trump when he assumes the presidency? -- D. Shelley, Bounder, CO

Like many Americans, environmental advocates are alarmed at the results of the 2016 election. What worries them most is Trump's call for reneging on the landmark Paris climate accord which secured commitments from the world’s largest polluters to scale back emissions. The agreement just went into force and the U.S. is committed to it for four years, but Trump insiders report The Donald may try to submit the agreement for ratification by an unsympathetic Senate (Obama has maintained ratification isn't necessary) in efforts to derail U.S. participation.

“If Trump yanks the United States out of the Paris agreement, the deal won’t die, but momentum could wane,” reports Brad Plumer on Vox.com. “One can imagine China and India deciding they don’t need to push nearly as hard on clean energy if the world’s richest and most powerful country doesn’t care. At best, progress would slow. At worst, the entire arrangement could collapse, and we set out on a path for 4°C warming or more.”

Another sore spot for environmentalists is Trump’s attitude toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Initially Trump said he would disband the agency, but more recently said he would keep it in a stripped down form refocused on its “core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.” Myron Ebell, a leading climate skeptic with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and no friend to the environmental community, is slated to run the new leaner EPA.

Meanwhile, proponents of pipelines to move petroleum products from the great gas and oil fields of the northern U.S. and Canada are overjoyed at the Republican sweep of Election 2016. Given Trump’s stated goals of reducing the federal government’s role in energy and environmental policy while encouraging more infrastructure projects to connect production with markets and consumers, environmentalists are bracing for a revival of the much-disputed Keystone XL pipeline project that President Obama rejected last year. There are fears as well of a green light for the Dakota Access Pipeline project currently in a holding pattern as native and environmental protestors stage a civil disobedience camp-out nearby. Not surprisingly, shares in the two companies behind the respective projects rallied following the election.

For their part, environmentalists are already starting to refocus on what they can do without the support of the White House. “Under President George W. Bush, the environmental community took the battle to the courts and Congress and watch-dogged political appointees; we blocked attacks on the environment; we galvanized the public to take action,” says Kate Colwell, an activist with the non-profit Friends of the Earth. “After the more recent fights to kill the Keystone XL pipeline, ban fracking and shut down coal plants, the environmental movement is stronger than we have ever been.”

“We will have to harness our new energy, join together, and use every strategy possible to fight against hate and greed and environmental destruction,” she adds. “While I wish we had a different fight before us, we must fight the one presented to us. The future of our country and planet depends on it.”

CONTACTS: Vox, www.vox.com; Friends of the Earth, www.foe.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org . Send questions to:question@earthtalk.org .



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