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The Woods Around Chernobyl Aren't Decaying

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Like a landscape of the undead, the woods outside Chernobyl are having trouble decomposing. The catastrophic meltdown and ensuing radiation blast of April 1986 has had long-term effects on the very soil and ground cover of the forested region, essentially leaving the dead trees and leaf litter unable to decompose. The result is a forest full of "petrified-looking pine trees" that no longer seem capable of rotting.

Indeed, Smithsonian reports, "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."


All of that now has been slowed way down, as explored in a new study led by University of South Carolina biologist Timothy Mousseau, just published in Oecologica.


Mouseeau and his colleagues explain that they would normally expect to see between 70% and 90% loss of dead plant matter over the course of a year as the discarded leaves and branches are consumed by local microbes; however, at the various test points they established throughout the Chernobyl forested region, the sampled vegetation had lost less than 40% over the same time frame.

This means the woods are decaying approximately twice as slowly, stretching out their period of decay for years, if not decades, and, in the process, piling up fuel for future forest fires.

As Smithsonian also mentions, this is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of all of this, and all the more reason to be concerned about the radioactive side-effects of such a fire: "Other studies have found that 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."

Either way, there is something immensely surreal in this dream-like vision of a dead forest that simply cannot decay, its branches lifeless yet ever-present, petrified or fossilized in place, its carpet of leaves always growing deeper and seeming to never go away.


Lead photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images News