The Aral Sea was among the world’s greatest inland bodies of water. Before the 1950s, its fishing industry thrived, and life was good for the locals. Then the Soviet Union became involved and changed the landscape. The water levels dropped. The fishing industry suffered. After all that damage, a dark secret from the Soviet’s past was exposed. It effectively made the Aral Sea one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
The Aral Sea was known as the world’s fourth largest inland lake. Found in between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, it had a great importance back in the 1900s — greater than most people realized.
United States Navy
Nearby cotton farms had been established. The production helped turn the area into a prominent exporter of the material. The booming industry didn’t cause any environmental damage but as the years went on, it didn’t last.
International Labour Organization
Through the ’40s and ’50s, the Soviet Union arrived and built irrigation systems to bring water from the Aral Sea into the cotton farms. It worked too well.
By the ’60s, the effects on the Aral Sea were apparent. Water levels sank. The salinity became higher, hurting the fishing industry. By the ’80s, the water had dropped 20 meters.
Sea beds were exposed and soon the fish populations completely died out. The body of water had practically become a desert. When 2007 came around, the Aral Sea had broken into two smaller sections that were a tenth of its original grand size.
The area was further harmed by extreme levels of pesticides, industrial chemicals, and fertilizer run-off. During dust storms, the chemicals swirled in the air. Like a death storm, it caused tuberculosis and cancer among the thousands of citizens nearby.
Boats were left to rust and rot. A visitor might believe they have stumbled upon a dystopian world. The worst-case scenario seemed to have occurred, but an even more dire environmental disaster had been brewing.
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With the reciting levels of the Aral Sea, the past came back with a vengeance. Besides the exposed sea beds, an island that the former Soviet Union had hoped to conceal resurfaced as well.
Vozrozhdeniye was an island far out in the middle of the Aral Sea. Starting back in the ’50s, during the heyday of the Cold War, the Soviets had used the island for bio-warfare experimentation.
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The experiments involved the world’s most deadly diseases. From the bubonic plague to smallpox, the island of Vozrozhdeniye was a dangerous storage house that made a deadly reappearance.
Over the following decades, the Soviet Union conducted open air tests on the island. Their scientists researched the weaponization of the diseases, which could wipe out thousands of lives if a mistake were made. And these errors did happen.
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In the early ’70s, a young scientist was aboard a research vessel in the Aral Sea that drifted into a brownish haze. A few days later, she fell ill with smallpox. She had already been vaccinated, hinting at her connections to the experimentations.
While she recovered, her smallpox infection led to an outbreak that spread to other people in her hometown. Three then succumbed to the disease, one tragically being her own brother.
Sometime later, the bodies of two fisherman were found in their boat out in the sea. They had been infected with the plague. In the ’80s, close to 50,000 antelope were grazing on nearby land. They all dropped dead before an hour was up.
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When the Soviet Union broke up in the 90s, Vozrozhdeniye was swiftly abandoned. Canisters of the many deadly diseases housed in its base were buried. The land was covered in bleach to ensure some level of safety.
Since then, only a handful of expeditions have traveled to the island, as safety concerns are a major factor. The island slowly became a part of the mainland with the lowering sea levels, which resulted in an even more dangerous inhabitant lurking around.
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With a 90% mortality rate, the spores of anthrax bacteria were found. While inactive, they have a stubbornly strong life span. Disinfectants won’t do much, neither would attempts in burning them in close to 400F degrees.
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In the early 2000s, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States sent an anti-terrorism team to the island. The goal was to clean up most of the deadly leftovers. Despite the mission, the area would be contaminated for a very long time.
Author Nick Middleton visited the island in 2005 and was met by startling sights. He found looters were a constant presence, wearing little to no protection. As time has gone by, the fallout of the exposed island soon reached the locals.
Going to Extremes: Voz-Island
Poverty increased due to the decline of the fishing industry. Rising cancer rates caused health concerns. The former Soviet Union carelessly left the locals to deal with the toxic landscape they created. Slowly but surely, it could match the greatest disaster in Soviet history.
The horror that quickly unraveled on April 26, 1986, in the city of Pripyat, Soviet Union, was a tragedy unlike the world ever saw in terms of radiation poisoning. A nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant completely perished.
Workers did everything they could to slow the meltdown, but in the end, they were forced to allow the structure to succumb to the devastation. The accident claimed the lives of 54 people almost immediately.
What once was a thriving power plant full of workers is now a barren wasteland of charred furniture and decrepit architecture. Even though the place is in ruins, teams of researchers still comb through the debris.
The effects of radiation are important for science, so teams of scientists frequent the Chernobyl “red zones” — areas closed off to the public due to dangerous amounts of lingering radiation — to study potential activity. Studies are fruitful.
Five years after the initial meltdown, researchers suited up and headed into the lingering radiation, unsure of what they might find. Though slightly weary of the fact that the fall out stuck around so long, this trip into the red zone proved that might be a good thing.
Because they stumbled upon this: It might look like a decaying wall, but what scientists were able to gather off of it was fungus that was actually thriving off of the gamma radiation it was covered in! They didn’t yet know its possibilities.
At least 200 species of fungus were discovered living off of radiation. Labeled “black fungi,” stunned scientists immediately began running tests. The substance actually grew faster when in the presence of gamma radiation!
More specifically, there were three strains that reacted positively to radiation: Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Cryptococcus neoformans, and Wangiella dermatitidis. Now, these may not mean a lot to the average Joe, but this revelation absolutely stunned the science world.
TSgt Christopher Carwile
Lead space fungi scientist and senior researcher at NASA, Kasthuri Venkat (right), said, “The fungi collected at the accident site had more melanin than the fungi collected from outside the exclusion zone.” He continued.
“This means the fungi have adapted to the radiation activity and as many as twenty percent were found to be radiotrophic — meaning they grew towards the radiation; they loved it.” The term for this process is radiosynthesis. But so what?
Microbiologist Arturo Casadevall was also involved with the Chernobyl fungal study, and he agreed with the finding’s importance. “The fact that it occurs in fungi raises the possibility that the same may occur in animals and plants.”
“The presumption has always been that we don’t know why truffles and other fungi are black. If they have some primitive capacity to harvest sunlight or to harvest some kind of background radiation a lot of them would be using it.” Researchers then had an idea.
After the discovery, scientists wanted to extract the radiation-absorbing power of the fungus. It was something they never saw before, and the impact it could offer the science world would create shockwaves.
Specifically, scientists believed the chemical compounds in the fungus could potentially help people who are routinely exposed to dangerous amount of radiation, such as cancer patients who undergo intense chemotherapy regimens.
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Nuclear power plant workers are also exposed to high levels of radiation. Even though they wear protective gear, the gamma rays can penetrate even the toughest protective clothing. There’s also hope with energy, as well.
Flickr / IAEA Imagebank
With the limited resources of coal and other fossil fuels we have, scientists hope they can possibly harness the chemicals to create some kind of biological energy source via the fungus’ radiation conversion method.
Flickr / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters
But, even more than those three uses, experts are hoping they can help astronauts. In 2016, NASA sent a package to the International Space Station that included several different fungal strains taken from Chernobyl.
The plan was to replicate the molecular changes in space and one day use the changes to protect astronauts from the deadly amounts of cosmic radiation they’re privy to when they venture into the solar system.
Amazingly, the fungus isn’t the only living thing thriving at Chernobyl — many species, including bears and wolves, have flourished on the grounds. But, there’s also been an influx of unwanted attention from humans.
See, the level of radioactivity is nowhere near what it was at the time of the meltdown, but there are still pockets of land that have unhealthy amounts. For this reason, visits have fairly strict time limits put on them. Some visitors are wise; others aren’t.
Because the incident was so devastating — a the story behind the disaster is fascinating — it draws crowds from all over who want to learn more. Some of these crowds have less-than-respectful intentions.
The respectful visitors might opt for a guided tour of the plant; one of the first things they see is that tribute to those who died trying to contain the mess. It reminds visitors what it all means — the weight of everything. But not everyone takes the site seriously.
See, one of the most important things people need to understand when they visit is how necessary it is to show respect. Many people suffered as a result of the accident, but unfortunately, not everyone who visits displays the same level of respect.
Social media influencers have been showing up more and more trying to snap photos and make videos of themselves hanging out on the ruins of Chernobyl — and not everyone sees it as “cool.”
In a world where people place such high value on the amount of followers they have or the number of views their profile gets, they need to find unique ways to garner attention, and for some, this means heading to Chernobyl.
These social media users are sneaking around Chernobyl outside the confines of tour groups to gain access to areas the public really shouldn’t be exploring for many different reasons.
First of all, certain areas are incredibly dangerous, and this photo proves it. No tour guide in their right mind would ever lead people to the end of a rickety old platform. But, a photo like this certainly gets likes on Instagram.
Another danger these people face is over-exposure to radioactivity. Sure, it might seem cool at the time to take a picture standing in a danger zone, but how cool will it be years from now when they develop cancerous nodes on their lungs?
The creator of the Chernobyl series on HBO, Craig Mazin, urged influencers to cool it with all the selfies and artsy pictures at the site — and for good reason. It shows blatant disregard of the effect the accident actually caused.
Take this photo, for example. This guy used an effect to make it look like he had four arms and three eyes, which was probably to signify the effects of radiation. However, the actual effects of radiation are painful and horrific.
In ’86, citizens of Pripyat were evacuated from their homes, terrified of what would happen to them. Now social media users like this woman are striking sullen poses for their Instagram accounts at a place they probably know very little about.
Unfortunately, so long as social media is around, people are going to do whatever they can to get the most followers. If that means taking photos they deem “hip” or “trendy” at the site of a disaster, you better believe they’ll keep doing it.
Still, not every photo-worthy opportunity is of a crumbling building or total chaos. Because, in the wake of the disaster, over 300,000 people were evacuated from the surrounding areas, forced to leave behind their homes, belongings, and even pets.
While most complied with the evacuation, a handful of lifelong residents decided to stay put in spite of the threat of radiation. Yet despite the presence of a few brave souls, the nearby towns and cities that once housed millions slowly began to crumble away.
The Long Shadow of Chernobyl
Three decades later, the Exclusion Zone remains almost completely abandoned, a ruined relic of the past completely frozen in time. But although the human population here has been reduced to near-zero, other populations have begun to thrive.
The descendants of the pets left behind during the initial evacuations still reside in the Exclusion Zone and continue to proliferate despite the high levels of radiation. The Clean Futures Fund, which has worked to care for these animals over the years, estimates that more than 600 strays call this area home.
Along with stray pets, the Exclusion Zone saw a dramatic increase in the number of wild animals in the area. In fact, some scientists believe that the local animal population is actually greater now than it was back in 1986.
Elk, deer, foxes, and bison are among the various groups of animals that have been spotted roaming the area, and with a lack of human interference, their numbers have exploded in recent years. Even the European brown bear – a species not seen in the region for nearly a century – has been spotted in the Zone.
Taking this phenomenon into account, conservationists are now making attempts to use the Exclusion Zone as a means to protect endangered animals. After releasing a herd of rare Przewalski’s horses into the area, scientists have seen a steady increase in their numbers as well.
But it seems that the native gray wolf population has benefited the most from the absence of humans. Without any natural predators, wolves have become the most prevalent species in the Exclusion Zone.
Scientists believe that the wolf population here is actually seven times larger than those of most uncontaminated reserves. In fact, wildlife ecologist Jim Beasley once estimated that the wolves of the Exclusion Zone outnumber even those of Yellowstone National Park.
Yet while it’s certainly a good thing that these animals have done so well, there’s still the question as to what kind of long-term effects the radiation will have on them. Thus far, scientists’ observations have been mixed.
Despite their large numbers, most of the stray dogs in the Exclusion Zone are struggling to survive. They primarily rely on scraps left behind by visitors for food, and very few of them live beyond the age of six.
Smaller animals like birds, fish, and rodents have also begun to exhibit the damaging effects of radiation, such as the development of tumors and cataracts. Albinism and other genetic disorders are also common, and the rate of growth abnormalities has spiked as well.
Even the insect world has been rocked by this radiation. Most spiders that reside in the Exclusion Zone can no longer spin geometrically perfect webs, and the lifespan of most bugs has decreased due to a higher susceptibility to parasites.
There is also fear that these animals will begin to venture beyond the Exclusion Zone, contaminating other areas and passing down their mutated genetic code to future offspring. This fear is especially true of the area’s birds, who can cover much larger distances than their four-legged counterparts.
Yet wolves are also known to stray to other parts of the region, most often in search of a mate. Given their large population and ease of mobility, this could pose an enormous threat to neighboring ecosystems.
To study this risk, scientists tracked these wolves and found that their influence may not be limited to just neighboring areas. One wolf traveled a staggering 250 miles in 2018, though to some, this was actually a positive.
World Economic Forum
According to Anders Moller, a scientist at the University of Paris-Stud, this wolf could travel such a great distance proved the effects of radiation on animals may not be as devastating as once believed. In fact, some have asserted the populations of the Exclusion Zone may have actually adapted to the radiation.
Though the long-term effects of this radiation remain to be seen, there’s no question the animals of the Exclusion Zone are more than capable of surviving. It might be worth taking a page or two from their book, however, as we humans come in contact with plenty of radiation in our daily lives — and most of us do so without even knowing it!
Because they carry the isotope potassium-40, bananas actually emit tiny traces of radiation that even a Geiger counter can pick up. But don’t cut ’em from your diet just yet. You’d have to eat about 500,000 bananas before you’d start feeling queasy.
Airport scanners are a problem too. In an instant, the controversial tool that TSA agents use to quickly search travelers for contraband exposes you to more radiation than you’d see living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant for a year.
The danger doesn’t stop once you’re through security, either. At about 35,000 feet, a six-hour flight from New York City to Los Angeles exposes travelers to radiation levels equivalent to about 400 trips through those airport security body scanners. Yikes!
Thanks to radioactive substances released through smoke, living within 50 miles of a coal power plant would expose you to far more radiation than if you lived the same distance from a nuclear power plant.
The Sunday Leader
In Brazil, the roots of trees that produce Brazil nuts extend so far into the ground they actually reach radium-rich soil. The radium—a natural source of radiation—then makes its way into the nuts themselves.
In the 1960s, it was common for dish and pottery makers to use thorium, potassium-40, or even depleted uranium oxide in coating glazes. Eating acidic foods on these plates could leach some of those elements.
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You know exit signs lining every hallway at the office or public place that show you the way out? They stay lit without electricity by utilizing a hydrogen isotope called tritium, a harmful radioactive substance if ingested.
The cylindrical bulbs of fluorescent lights produce that unsettling light in office buildings and classrooms often contain the radioactive isotope krypton-85. However, the other non-radioactive chemicals utilized in these bulbs are even more dangerous.
Master Sgt. Phil Speck / Kentucky Air National Guard
To actually detect smoke, some smoke detectors utilize americium-241, a radioactive isotope. Luckily, it’s surrounded by foil and stuff, so as long as you don’t eat the hallway smoke detector between hamburger buns, you should be safe.
Hoppy and Jumpy / YouTube
While it’s great for absorbing your cat’s hard work, the bentonite clay that makes up cat litter contains naturally occurring uranium and thorium. This causes a lot of problems when litter ends up in landfills or in drinking water.
Paper gets its shine from a white clay called kaolin. And as with kitty litter, it’s that clay that makes this radioactive because it contains traces of uranium and thorium.
Cosmic radiation is a real thing, especially for Colorado folk. The sun emits electromagnetic particles and ultraviolet rays, and the people of Denver—a city situated more than a mile above sea level—are exposed to about twice as much radiation as those living at sea level.
The very counters that make your kitchen pop have trace amounts of uranium and thorium in them. That uranium decays into a gas called radon, which can do some serious health damage. Luckily, the granite keeps most of it contained!
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Grand Central Station in New York City sits on a granite foundation and boasts granite walls, which, remember, holds radiation. In fact, the station emits more radiation in a year than the legal limits imposed on nuclear power plants would allow.
While it’s no mystery medical scans and X-rays give off radiation, just how much often flies under the radar. A single chest X-ray, in just one second, emits one-fifth of the radiation a nuclear power plant can legally emit in an entire year.
If you thought the chest X-ray was bad, a single blast from a CT scan gives off more radiation about eight times the amount nuclear power plants can legally emit in a whole year.
Cigarettes are bad for your health in more ways than one. Tobacco leaves contain traces of polonium-210, an element Russian government authorities allegedly used to assassinate Alexander Litvinenko, a political enemy (left). The element can build up in a smoker’s lungs and organs over time.
According to the National Cancer Institute, cell phones emit radio waves that may increase the risk of cancer or alter your brain in other yet-to-be-measured ways. Still, a lot of science argues that phones are perfectly safe.
San Diego Union Tribune
When you sprinkle fertilizer on your lawn, you’re laying down soil that’s rich with potassium, phosphorous, and nitrogen. That phosphorous can contain uranium, which is considered “weakly radioactive.” Still, it could make its way into any food grown in that soil!
Even you — yes, you! — are a radioactive being. Bodies contain elements like potassium-40, uranium, thorium, and carbon-14, the decay of which allows scientists to determine the age of skeletons with carbon dating.
University of California, Irvine / Flickr