Radiation damage has affected Chernobyl's ecosystem

Posted Mar 21, 2014 by Tim Sandle
A new study has shown that radiological damage to microbes near the site of the Chernobyl disaster has slowed the decomposition of fallen leaves and other plant matter in the area.
A Chernobyl disaster.
A Chernobyl disaster.
Soviet Authorities
The main impact on the area is that due to the radiation microorganisms are fewer in number and are not breaking down plant matter and waste. The resulting buildup of dry, loose detritus is a wildfire hazard that poses the threat of spreading radioactivity from the Chernobyl area.
The Chernobyl nuclear facility exploded and released large quantities of radioactive compounds in the Ukraine region of the Soviet Union in 1986. The effects of this major incident are still present in the region today.
To measure the ecological impact, scientists measured the rate at which plant material decomposed as a function of background radiation, placing hundreds of samples of uncontaminated leaf litter (pine needles and oak, maple and birch leaves) in mesh bags throughout the area. The researchers also measured the thickness of the forest floor in the same areas where samples were placed. They found that it was thicker in places with higher background radiation.
The scientists have concluded that the bacteria and fungi that decompose plant matter in healthy ecosystems are hindered by radioactive contamination. They showed a smaller effect for small invertebrates, such as termites, that also contribute to decomposition of plant biomass.
The research has been conducted by the Chernobyl and Fukushima Research Initiatives at the University of South Carolina. The research has been published in the journal Oecologia in a paper titled “Highly reduced mass loss rates and increased litter layer in radioactively contaminated areas”.