A Surprising Kind of Sequestration

Trees near Chernobyl image dated  June 28, 2013

Trees near Chernobyl
image dated June 28, 2013

Lately, this blog has been focusing of how trees sequester Carbon but that is not the only element that trees are able to contain within their solid forms. It was surprising for me to discover that trees also have an ability to sequester radiation. The trees in the forests in the the vicinity of Chernobyl died several decades ago with the massive release of radiation that occurred with that accident. However, what is surprising to me to learn is that unlike most trees that die in a forest, these trees are not decomposing or decaying “normally”.

The “dead zone” includes a dearth of microbes and fungi that would normally be doing their work to return the dead solid matter of the trees into soil. Even the leaf litter and dead brush that would normally be decomposed in a matter of a few years are not decomposing but accumulating on the ground.

Well known among the forests in the vicinity of Chernobyl is the Red Forest. This is a Pine forest that turned a reddish color and died quite soon after the accident. The trees were subjected to radiation equivalent to that of 20 times the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, radiation levels in the Red Forest can be as high as one Roentgen per hour, but levels of ten milliröntgens per hour are more common. More than 90% of the radioactivity of the Red Forest is concentrated in the soil. In an average forest, such dead tree matter is no more than sawdust within a decade – about a third of the time that the trees have now been standing since the accident.

In the post-disaster cleanup operations, a majority of the pine trees were bulldozed and buried in trenches by the “liquidators”. The trenches were then covered with a thick carpet of sand and planted with pine saplings. Many fear that as the trees decay, radiation will leach into the ground water. People have evacuated the contaminated zone around the Red Forest. Of the greatest concern in the Chernobyl forest, that still stands but is dead wood, is the potential for a catastrophic wildfire that would effectively release radiation into the atmosphere along with the smoke and other gases that would be generated.

Chernobyl 1st Yr  radiation impacts

Chernobyl 1st Yr
radiation impacts

A University of Southern California Professor’s analysis in the Fall of 1999, produced the following conclusions – “Pine trees were the first type of trees to die from radiation poisoning from Chernobyl. Birch, oak and other leafy species were reported to have survived the first year of radiation exposure. Rodent populations and sensitive plants were eliminated almost immediately. The fallout of radiation from Chernobyl severely contaminated the environment, affecting the agriculture and food supplies of much of N. Europe and the Nordic countries following the Chernobyl disaster. In 1996 a meeting of international scientists met in Vienna, Austria to report on the Chernobyl incident 10 years after the accident. They concluded that most of the severe environmental impacts were short-term, and that full recovery of the ecosystems would occur given ample time.”

Radiation is a part of our lives that we can not readily avoid and human interactions with the environment are part of the effects. So, beyond the effects of the Chernobyl accident upon the forests in the surrounding areas, are the more recent effects of the Fukushima accident in Japan which was upon the oceanic coast.

Dr. Herbert Abrams, Harvard and Stanford University professor of radiology & principal researcher for the National Research Council’s study ‘Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation’ who testified before Congress about its conclusions said: “… avoid radiation as much as you can … Am I concerned? Yes I am, that’s because I know radiation pretty well … It shakes up the cell and it goes after the genetic material … The bottom line is that (radiation) is a carcinogenic agent … there is increased risk. … Physicists, or at least some of them, are the people in the nuclear industry itself. They play down (the risks) at such low doses, but they never talk about it as being cumulative.”

NOAA map of  Fukushima radiation plume

NOAA map of
Fukushima radiation plume

Henrieta Dulaiova, an assistant professor in the University of Hawaii’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, has been studying the radiation released into the Pacific Ocean since the 2011 disaster in Japan. The ocean samples that Dulaiova has been analyzing are collected at Station Aloha which is 100 miles north of Oahu. Dulaiova also has an ongoing study that involves testing mushrooms in Hawaii that bioaccumulate cesium. The goal is to learn more about the atmospheric fallout from the disaster.

Officials from Hawaii’s health department also said that there is no significant threat to the state right now. Workers continue to monitor the air, rain, drinking water, milk, and tsunami debris for elevated radiation levels. According to state health officials, federal experts do not anticipate contamination of seafood in U.S. waters at this time. “I would say you’ll be safe. Just this is an educated guess depending on how soon the plume gets here and based on the measurements that we have done on the edge of the plume,” Dulaiova said.

Dulaiova said it’s difficult to predict the radiation plume’s location since there are several different ocean models. According to her, the plume is likely to hit the west coast and then possibly reach Hawaii at low levels in 2015.

It looks like this event’s results will be “developing” for some time to come.

~ Information Resources

“Undead Forests Around Chernobyl Won’t Decompose” by Brian Stallard posted July 7, 2014 at Nature World News – http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/7941/20140707/undead-forests-around-chernobyl-wont-decompose.htm

“Red Forest” information found in Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Forest

“Environmental Impact of Radiation” from a paper produced in Fall 1999 at the U of So CA, Professor Najmedin Meshkati – http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~meshkati/tefall99/part2.htmlhttp://enenews.com/california-paper-fukushima-plume-health-effects-stanford-expert-concerned-because-radiation-pretty-increased-risk-uc-berkeley-nuclear-prof-everyone-really-scared

“California Newspaper: Health effects in U.S. from Fukushima radiation” posted July 9, 2014 at ENENews.com –

“Hawaii researchers monitor impacts from Fukushima radiation” by Lisa Kubota, posted Sept 4, 2013 at HawaiiNewsNow.com – http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/23332970/hawaii-researchers-monitor


Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer