Fire also imposes one more stress on Chernobyl’s ecosystems, a decidedly human wrench thrown into their long recovery from nuclear disaster. Induced by climate change and sparked by human activity, fire here is only slightly more natural than radiation. Persistent and widespread fire may destroy soil organics and radically redistribute the accumulated radionuclides, Yoschenko said, altering soil chemistry. Changes in soil chemistry will alter plants, which in turn will affect the food chain and animals dependent on it. And larger, more intense fires could destroy the forests entirely, obliterating their ability to keep what’s in Chernobyl in Chernobyl. “Keeping forests healthy is the main ingredient to preventing the migration of radionuclides outside the zone,” Zibtsev told me.
For now, Chernobyl’s forests and grasslands are continuing to process cesium, strontium, and other radionuclides. Even the roots of the contorted trees in the Red Forest are taking up radionuclides, holding and stabilizing them in an ecosystem’s gift to the humans who created these contaminants. That process promises to continue—at least until the August fire season gets underway.
Jane Braxton Little discusses the forests that surroundand the purpose they serve in stopping the spread of radiation and the dangers of forest fire. At least there was one positive to the Australian bushfires.