Dear EarthTalk: How has wildlife been affected around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Russia three decades ago? — Walter Scinto, Hartford, CT
The Chernobyl disaster confirmed everyone’s worst nightmares about the awesome power of nuclear reactions. When the Ukrainian reactor collapsed, the radioactive fallout profoundly contaminated the surrounding environment, affecting any living beings located within the so-called “Exclusion Zone” of 30 kilometers around the reactor’s shell. Acute radiation poisoning annihilated a large pine stand, since renamed “the Red Forest,” while many animals suffered significant physical or mental abnormalities.
Invertebrates in the area suffered particularly dramatic population crashes, as most radioactive material resides in the topsoil layer where such insects survive and reproduce. Even apparently healthy wildlife was forbidden from resale because of the dangerous levels of radioactivity. The dangers of radiation led to a government-mandated eviction of the radioactive territory soon after the 1986 explosion.
However, 30 years of isolation from humans has proven to be the most beneficial consequence of the disaster. After the initial devastation of the radioactive fallout, species began to adapt to the higher levels of radiation. Indeed, species diversity and populations are actually healthier now than in most other forests in Eastern Europe. This recognition from the Ukrainian government led to the Exclusion Zone’s establishment as one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in Europe in 2007. Some rare and endangered species, including lynx and the European bison, have returned to the area and can be found in higher densities than in radiation-free forests. Even the Przewalski’s horse, extinct in the area and artificially reintroduced to the Exclusion Zone in the 1990s, has flourished; the population has reached stability and is even starting to spread out beyond the protective fencing of the Zone.
The question remains of how these animals are able to sustain such high levels of radiation without succumbing to its deadly effects. Recent studies of the Chernobyl region by wildlife biologists Anders Pape Møller and Timothy Mousseau have identified serious consequences of radiation, even within thriving populations. Mutations among affected Exclusion Zone species include higher rates of cataracts, partial albinism, and physical variation. However, it appears the deadly mutations took their toll on populations immediately. Subsequent surviving generations have shown amazing adaptability.
Møller and Mousseau conclude that while radiation is inarguably bad for the environment, its impact on wildlife is far overshadowed by the effects of typical human development. While no one would have wished for the Chernobyl meltdown, environmentalists point out the silver lining of being able to monitor wildlife population in the absence of human populations and activities.
Chernobyl is a primary example of ecosystem resilience as capable of overcoming radioactive devastation – and can teach us all a lesson about the importance of setting aside at least some wild areas just for wildlife. Furthermore, the experiences at Chernobyl and in the intervening years illustrate the benefits of preservation over conservation. While conservationists encourage sustainable use of natural resources as optimal for wildlife health, Chernobyl shows the incredible benefits to wildlife of just leaving vast swaths of land alone and letting the animals just get on with their lives.
Contacts: “Animals Rule Chernobyl 30 Years After Nuclear Disaster,” news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/060418-chernobyl-wildlife-thirty-year-anniversary-science/; “Wolves in Chernobyl Dead Zone,” documentaryheaven.com/wolves-in-chernobyl-dead-zone/. Photo above: These days, wildlife is thriving around the site of the nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in the Ukraine three decades ago. Credit: NASA.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that polyester fleece clothing is a huge contributor to the problem of plastic in our oceans? — Mickey Walton, Seattle, WA
We’re all familiar with the issue of non-biodegradable plastic debris (shopping bags, soda bottles, fishing nets, etc.) clogging up our waterways and making its way out to sea — sometimes accumulating in huge “gyres.” But what you might not realize is that even if you are responsible about recycling and not littering, you may still be contributing to the ocean’s plastic burden by virtue of the clothes on your back.
“The single biggest plastic pollution problem facing our ocean is microfiber: trillions of pieces of tiny fibers flowing into the ocean — every time we use our washing machines,” reports the nonprofit Rozalia Project. “Our synthetic clothing is breaking up, sending this plastic microfiber out with the drain water.” According to the group, just one fleece jacket could shed over 81,000 minute strands of polyester per wash. “New York City, alone, could have 6.8 billion microfibers flowing into its harbor every day.”
According to activist Sarah Mosko, the tiny size of microplastics actually adds to their dangers. “Because plastics are lipophylic (oil-loving), oily contaminants in seawater are drawn to them,” she reports on Algalita’s blog. “Japanese researchers found that plastic pellets no more than a half millimeter in diameter could adsorb hazardous chemicals (like polychlorinated biphenyls, nonylphenols and derivatives of DDT) onto their surfaces at up to one million times the concentrations in the surrounding water.” The tiny size of microplastics means that even minute creatures can ingest them, thereby introducing any chemicals they carry into the very bottom of the food chain.
The Rozalia Project adds that “ingested pollutants can un-stick from the plastic and end up in the stomachs and tissue” of everything from plankton to whales, causing issues at the cellular level as well as digestive problems. Rozalia researchers found that two-thirds of all fish species tested from markets in California had microfiber or microplastic in them. Even those who don’t eat fish may not be able to avoid ingesting microfibers, given that farm animals are typically fed fish meal as a dietary staple.
So what can be done? Rozalia has developed “the world’s first consumer solution” to stop microfiber pollution. The patent-pending microfiber catcher works in any washing machine, catching microfibers so they can’t flow out with the drain water. “Early test results show the microfiber catcher keeping 2,000-9,000 pieces of synthetic microfibers from flowing into our public waterways per wash per household.”
Outdoor clothing and gear makers are starting to realize that they can be part of the solution, as well. Earlier this year, Patagonia commissioned microbiologists from UC-Santa Barbara to study the problem and suggest ways the company could reduce microfiber pollution moving forward. The company is sharing the findings with its competitors in order to collaborate on industry-wide solutions.
We probably can’t do much, concludes Sarah Mosko, about the microplastics that are already contaminating our oceans, but we can start making smarter clothing choices, adding that “natural fiber cloths like cotton, silk, wool, bamboo, hemp and even soy may be better choices for those concerned about the environment. All derive from renewable sources, are intrinsically biodegradable, and their fibers would not attract oily chemicals out of seawater.”
Contacts: Rozalia Project, www.rozaliaproject.org; Algalita, www.algalita.org; UC Santa Barbara study, www.esm.ucsb.edu/research/2016Group_Projects/documents/PataPlastBrief.pdf.
Dear EarthTalk: You hear a lot about solar and wind energy, but what’s new in efforts to generate electricity from ocean waves? — Melanie Bernstein, New York, NY
Wave power advocates cheered in September 2016 when Hawaii-based Naval researchers started feeding power from two experimental offshore wave energy devices into the grid on nearby Oahu, representing the first time the American public could access electricity derived from ocean waves. The trickle of energy from these experimental devices doesn’t amount to anything substantial yet, but wave energy’s potential is huge.
Analysts think we could derive at least a quarter of U.S. electricity needs by harnessing wave power around our coasts. Most other countries around the world have coastlines they could exploit for wave energy, as well, if engineers could create affordable technology to capture and transport the energy back to shore where it would be used to power local communities or get fed into existing larger power grids.
But just because we can tap ocean energy big time doesn’t mean we necessarily will, given the high costs of getting started, technical issues with maintaining offshore equipment, and the challenges of scaling up for mass consumption. The world’s first experimental wave farm, the Aguçadoura Wave Park off the coast of Portugal, went online in September 2008 with three wave energy converter machines, but ceased operations only two months later when bearings on the equipment gave way, underscoring the technical challenges of running complicated heavy machinery in unstable marine environments.
While such technical problems may be frustrating, financial concerns loom larger over wave energy’s future. Two of the biggest wave energy endeavors in the world, Pelamis and Aquamarine, both based out of wave-battered Scotland, went belly up recently despite funding from the Scottish government and plans to build out the biggest wave energy farms in the world based on the success of earlier prototypes.
Aquamarine’s CEO John Malcolm chalked up his company’s demise to “the considerable financial, regulatory and technical challenges faced by the ocean energy sector as a whole.” Meanwhile, cheap natural gas and the surge in solar and wind power options have kept ocean energy on the back burner.
But wave power is far from dead in the water. Besides the experimental wave farm off Oahu, two larger projects are being built off the coast of the United Kingdom, while three additional projects are underway around Australia. Funding for these projects has come from not only the host governments but also the private sector. American defense contractor Lockheed Martin, for one, is a big player in deployment of wave power technologies and is a driving force behind the 19 megawatt, grid-connected wave power station currently in the works near Victoria, Australia.
Here in the U.S., wave energy advocates say the federal government has done too little to encourage research and development in this promising niche of the energy sector. Subsidies and tax incentives helped solar and wind power grow from pipe dreams in the 1980s to significant players in the global energy mix of today. Wave power advocates would like to see similar incentives employed to boost the development of ocean-based renewable energy sources, but for that to happen the American public will need to speak up to get Congress to act.