This video segment from Nature: “Radioactive Wolves” examines the evolution of part of the Pripyat Marshes under Soviet rule from wetland wilderness to agricultural and nuclear powerhouse and back again in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
- What massive project did the Soviet Union undertake in the Pripyat Marshes in the 1920s? What did it entail?
- What was the purpose of “land improvement?”
- Since the Chernobyl disaster, how has wildlife helped restore the land to its original state?
The Pripyat Marshes is the vast “inland delta” of the Pripyat River and its tributaries covering approximately 100,000 square miles of the Eastern European nations of Belarus and Ukraine. The landscape of swampy rivers, sandy floodplains, and dense forests has never been particularly hospitable to human habitation. They were for centuries a largely impassable wilderness and a major strategic obstacle for invaders ranging from Ghenghis Khan to Hitler.
In the 1870s, when the marshes fell within Tsarist Russia’s borders, the first attempts were made to drain the land and put it to agricultural use. These efforts were revived with considerably greater fervor in the 1920s, with the establishment of the Soviet Union and its aggressive Five Year Plans to modernize and expand the Soviet economy. This “land improvement” involved clearing vast swathes of forest, damming rivers into reservoirs, and digging thousands of miles of canals. Thousands of settlers were brought in to work on newly established government-owned “collective farms,” where they worked together to help grow and harvest the rye, barley, wheat, and flax which made Ukraine the “breadbasket of the Soviet Union.”
While making parts of the Pripyat Marshes much more habitable and productive for the Soviets, land improvement destroyed much of the natural wetland ecosystem which had once thrived there. The elk, wolves, foxes, and other game animals which survived were aggressively hunted, as were beavers, considered vermin because their dams obstructed canals.
Even after the agricultural settlement of the southern Pripyat Marshes, the overall human population there remained relatively sparse, and this, combined with the availability of water from the Pripyat River, determined the government’s decision in 1970 to build the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on the river, along with an adjoining city of modern steel and concrete called Pripyat to house the plant’s workers.
Pripyat was evacuated on April 27, 1986—the day after the accident at Chernobyl. Told only to bring the bare necessities, Pripyat’s residents would never return, leaving the city an eerie time capsule of that day. The sudden death of nearby pines in what would become known as “The Red Forest” seemed to confirm fears that nuclear contamination would render the area a desert. An “Exclusion Zone” was established around Chernobyl, cordoning off the area of greatest radioactivity from everyone but official government workers.
Nature in the Exclusion Zone has proven far more resilient than expected. Suddenly and completely free of the humans who had hunted them for centuries and destroyed so much of their natural habitat, however, and despite lingering levels of radioactivity that would be unacceptable for humans, wildlife has flourished. With it has come a gradual return of the land itself to its natural, pre-“improvement” state. Forests are overgrowing abandoned cities and beavers are busily damming rivers and canals, returning hard-won agricultural land to swampy marsh and reestablishing the complex wetlands ecosystem which once thrived there. Much like the Chernobyl disaster itself, the new wilderness of the Exclusion Zone is a stark reminder of human limitations.
Life Science – Content Standard C
As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of
- Populations and ecosystems
- The number of organisms an ecosystem can support depends on the resources available and abiotic factors, such as quantity of light and water, range of temperatures, and soil composition. Given adequate biotic and abiotic resources and no disease or predators, populations (including humans) increase at rapid rates. Lack of resources and other factors, such as predation and climate, limit the growth of populations in specific niches in the ecosystem.
As a result of their activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of
- Interdependence of organisms
- Living organisms have the capacity to produce populations of infinite size, but environments and resources are finite. This fundamental tension has profound effects on the interactions between organisms
- o Human beings live within the world’s ecosystems. Increasingly, humans modify ecosystems as a result of population growth, technology, and consumption. Human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, atmospheric changes, and other factors is threatening current global stability, and if not addressed, ecosystems will be irreversibly affected.
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives – Content Standard F
As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of
- Populations, resources, and environments
- Causes of environmental degradation and resource depletion vary from region to region and from country to country.
- Natural hazards
- Human activities also can induce hazards through resource acquisition, urban growth, land-use decisions, and waste disposal. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.
As a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of
- Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
- Humans have a major effect on other species. For example, the influence of humans on other organisms occurs through land use—which decreases space available to other species—and pollution—which changes the chemical composition of air, soil, and water.