The Undead Trees of Chernobyl: Plant Matter That Won’t Decompose
By Lenny Pierce on March 27, 2014
As if the Ukraine didn’t have enough problems, the radioactive dead plant matter of Chernobyl is refusing to decompose, causing a forest fire risk that could mean radiation is delivered via death smoke to populated areas.
Tim Mousseau of the University of South Carolina has made ongoing observations on the biology of radioactive areas around the world. Mousseau said of the Chernobyl trees, “we were stepping over all these dead trees on the ground that had been killed by the initial blast… years later, these tree trunks were in pretty good shape. If a tree had fallen in my backyard, it would be sawdust in 10 years or so.”
Researchers suspect that this may have to do with the radiation’s harmful effect on those organisms which are usually responsible for that tree-to-sawdust transformation. Just as radiation therapy on cancer patients can reduce levels of helpful bacteria in the human digestive system, the Chernobyl contamination could mean that the surrounding forest’s decomposers might not be plentiful enough to do their job.
Fungi are crucial for the decomposition of dead plant matter. (Wikimedia Commons)
Unfortunately, there is one thing that could still consume the feast of dead plant matter and that is fire. “This litter accumulation that we measured, which is likely a direct consequence of reduced microbial decomposing activity, is like kindling,” Mousseau says. “It’s dry, light and burns quite readily. It adds to the fuel, as well as makes it more likely that catastrophically sized forest fires might start.”
Here’s where it gets really scary. Should a forest fire happen in this this radioactive tinder box, the resulting smoke and ash would effectively carry radiation to areas currently at a safe distance from the disaster site itself. If you’re a Nerdist reader in the greater Chernobyl area, make sure your campfires are all the way out and don’t flick your cigarette butts into the woods. Only you can prevent radioactive forest fires.
If you think radiation in the Chernobyl forest is bad, check out the hell storm astronauts would face on the way to Mars.
Got an alternate conclusion on these resiliently dead trees? Theorize below. Fantastical logic very much encouraged here. Anything involving a zombie Soviet tree army will get extra points.