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The Undead Trees of Chernobyl: Plant Matter That Won’t Decompose

As if the Ukraine didn’t have enough problems, the radioactive dead plant matter of Chernobyl is refusing to decompose, causing a forest fire risk that could mean radiation is delivered via death smoke to populated areas.

Tim Mousseau of the University of South Carolina has made ongoing observations on the biology of radioactive areas around the world. Mousseau said of the Chernobyl trees, “we were stepping over all these dead trees on the ground that had been killed by the initial blast… years later, these tree trunks were in pretty good shape. If a tree had fallen in my backyard, it would be sawdust in 10 years or so.”

Researchers suspect that this may have to do with the radiation’s harmful effect on those organisms which are usually responsible for that tree-to-sawdust transformation. Just as radiation therapy on cancer patients can reduce levels of helpful bacteria in the human digestive system, the Chernobyl contamination could mean that the surrounding forest’s decomposers might not be plentiful enough to do their job.

Cher Fungi IP

Fungi are crucial for the decomposition of dead plant matter. (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, there is one thing that could still consume the feast of dead plant matter and that is fire. “This litter accumulation that we measured, which is likely a direct consequence of reduced microbial decomposing activity, is like kindling,” Mousseau says. “It’s dry, light and burns quite readily. It adds to the fuel, as well as makes it more likely that catastrophically sized forest fires might start.”

Here’s where it gets really scary. Should a forest fire happen in this this radioactive tinder box, the resulting smoke and ash would effectively carry radiation to areas currently at a safe distance from the disaster site itself. If you’re a Nerdist reader in the greater Chernobyl area, make sure your campfires are all the way out and don’t flick your cigarette butts into the woods. Only you can prevent radioactive forest fires.

If you think radiation in the Chernobyl forest is bad, check out the hell storm astronauts would face on the way to Mars.

Got an alternate conclusion on these resiliently dead trees? Theorize below. Fantastical logic very much encouraged here. Anything involving a zombie Soviet tree army will get extra points.

HT: LiveScience

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  1. Fegit says:

    Wtf Who cares

  2. Anna says:

    Jackie wins.

  3. Tyler says:

    @ dawn, jason Sounds like the prequel to The Last of Us, actually

  4. mikey says:

    no lets ride this one out and send unsuspecting horny american teens, (who are looking for the thrill) to get picked off one by one in the forest by the trees that have come to life. imagine the survivors story “the trees got um!!”

  5. Jackie says:

    Do you want Ents? This is how you get Ents!

  6. RickC says:

    Great Documentary on Netflix about nuclear energy called “Pandora’s Promise” that touches on the long term affects of the accident.

  7. Michelle says:

    Before trying to jumpstart decomposition by reintroducing bacteria, I’d want to test whether the radioactivity is still high enough to kill them.

  8. Jason says:


    That sounds like that makings of the next big apocalypse movie

  9. Dawn says:

    If the radiation diminished the bacteria could they now reintroduce bacteria back onto these dead trees? I am thinking of how you can grow moss on boulders and trees by mixing it in a blender with beer and spray it on the desired surface and keeping it moist. Although, they may end up unleashing the next big pandemic if they did do something like that…
    Never mind…

  10. Greg Easton says:

    Scientists (ok, Creationist Scientists) believe that the radiation killed off the beneficial species of ‘wood elves’ normally responsible for the timely dismantling of dead trees and brush. They also believed that cavemen rode dinosaurs so…