Investigation into ecological impact of Chornobyl wildfires

A project led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) investigated the impact of the 2020 wildfires in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone on wildlife.  

The 2,600 km2 Ukrainian exclusion zone was created when people and farm animals were evacuated following the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear plant in April 1986. The Chornobyl disaster remains the world’s worst nuclear accident and the exclusion zone is the most radioactively contaminated ecosystem on earth. Yet it has become a haven for wildlife in the absence of humans.

An area of more than 500 km2 within the Ukrainian exclusion zone was affected by severe fires in April 2020. The study led by UKCEH assessed the effect the fires have had on the diversity and abundance of mammals and birds, as well as soil function. It also assessed the impact of the fires on the mobility of radionuclides (or radioactive elements) and the risk posed to firefighters and the general population by the inhalation of contaminated smoke.

The year-long project, Chornobyl – a Radioactive Ecosystem on Fire (CHAR), was being funded by an Urgency Grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), part of UK Research and Innovation.

It was led by UKCEH radioecologist Professor Nick Beresford, who has been carrying out research in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) for about 30 years, and also involved researchers from the University of Salford and University of Portsmouth, as well as from Belgium and Norway. The fieldwork for the study is being undertaken by Ukrainian collaborators, who will be complying with the national government’s COVID-19 guidelines.

Professor Beresford explains: “This area has developed into an important natural laboratory to study the effects of radiation on wildlife, as well as ecosystem recovery and rewilding. Some 1,200 plant and 341 vertebrate species, including wolves, bear and lynx, have been recorded in the exclusion zone. Along with the Ukrainian CEZ, a similar-sized part of adjoining Belarus was also evacuated and this combined area is now the third-largest nature reserve in mainland Europe.”

Professor Beresford was previously involved in studying the impact of fires in July 2016 which burned 80 per cent of the highly contaminated 'Red Forest', an area of up to 6km2 of coniferous forest killed by high levels of radiation after the Chornobyl accident. He says: “While fires are an annual event, those in April 2020 were the worst in the 34-year history of the zone. They presented a unique and urgent opportunity to study the impacts on radionuclide mobility and ecosystem recovery.”

Further information

CHAR follows the TREE project, which was the largest coordinated study on radiation exposure and effects undertaken within the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. TREE, which involved an international team of researchers led by Professor Beresford, ran from October 2013 until March 2019. Funded by NERC, the Environment Agency and Radioactive Waste Management Ltd. under the Radioactivity and the Environment (RATE) programme, TREE was awarded Times Higher Education Research Project of the Year 2016.