Wildfires are already releasing radiation locked in the soil around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor site in Ukraine and Belarus, and “the situation is set to worsen with climate change, political instability—and a bizarre effect of radiation on dead leaves,” New Scientist reports this week.
A team from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research calculated radiation levels in soil in the dense boreal forest in the 4,800 square kilometre exclusion zone around the plant. “In another ecosystem this might gradually fall with erosion or the removal of vegetation,” MacKenzie writes. But in the abandoned forests in the exclusion zone, according to project lead Nikolaos Evangeliou, “trees pick up the radioactive ions, then dead leaves return it to the soil.”
New Scientist describes some of the unique characteristics of the exclusion zone forest, noting that “increased forest fires seem likely. The area is due to get drier, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The team found that droughts are already worsening forest fires in both area and intensity, and those are predicted to worsen.”