“But it got very intense radiation doses within the days after the accident. Chernobyl is different from Fukushima in that there was hot particle fallout, so little micron-sized bits of nuclear fuel were deposited within the 10-kilometer zone of the plant, and the Red Forest got a big amount of that.”
In fact, so intense was this initial dosage of dust raining down on the forest that anecdotal reports say that pine needles were physically pitted and burned as the hot nuclear fuel landed on them. Needless to say, the trees rapidly died, turning a rusty red and giving the small patch of trees its name. Even today, this region is still the most radioactive part of the whole exclusion zone.
The pine trees were, it would seem, more susceptible to the intense fallout than the deciduous trees. This, Smith suspects, is due to the fact that the deciduous trees could simply drop their leaves when they were affected by the radiation, but the evergreens couldn’t. This meant that many of the deciduous trees managed to survive enormous doses of radiation that would have undoubtedly killed a human.
While there are reports that the leaf litter built up in the forests because the microorganisms and invertebrates in the soil were blasted by the radiation, this is unlikely to be true. “People have done studies on soil invertebrates in the Red Forest, but in general they didn’t find a difference in the activity,” says Smith. As always, though, there are some who claim otherwise.
This probably isn’t surprising when you consider what it actually takes to kill an invertebrate. During the Cold War, among all the swirling fear and expectation that America, Russia, or both would actually drop a nuclear bomb, scientists zapped many organisms to see what would happen if this did come about. And, well, insects are pretty tough. So the fallout from Chernobyl is unlikely to have had a significant impact on them.
What happened to the larger animals during these early years is a little less well understood. The Iron Curtain still stood strong at the time of the blast, and so only Soviet scientists were allowed access to the site. They conducted yearly aerial surveys from a helicopter to count the elk, roe deer, and wild boar, but only in some parts of the exclusion zone, meaning that they were pretty limited in what they can tell us. But they did seem to show that within two years there was already a steady increase in mammal numbers.
It would seem that – despite popular assumption – the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl has had a limited impact on the wildlife in the region, and some species may have even benefitted from it.