Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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» Chernobyl, Ukraine

A nuclear accident devastated the region near Chernobyl, Ukraine, on April 26, 1986. These images show the area around the nuclear power plant three days after the accident, six years later, and 25 years later. The other sections also show the area almost 30 years after the accident.

The Landsat 5 image from April 29, 1986, was the first satellite image of the accident. The data from Landsat were used to help confirm that an explosion had happened at Chernobyl and that the plant had been shut down.

Map of the featured area.

Near the common borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant lies near the Pripyat River at the northwestern end of a cooling pond. The pond is 12 km long; during normal operation the plant discharged warm water counterclockwise around the pond, taking in cool water near the north end. Just northwest of the plant is the city of Pripyat. The smaller town of Chernobyl lies south of the cooling pond.

The 1986 and 1992 images clearly show farm abandonment. Agriculture appears as a collage of bright green (growing crops) and tan (highly reflective bare ground). Many of these areas appear a flat gray-green in 1992, indicating natural vegetation that has taken over the abandoned fields. The 2011 and 2015 images show that this land change persists.

While the reactor was still on fire, all settlements within 30 km were evacuated, including Pripyat (1986 population 45,000), Chernobyl (1986 population 12,000), and 94 other villages (estimated total population 40,000). This area remains almost completely abandoned and is called the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The area is a mixture of former agriculture, forest, and marshland. It has been mostly free from human intervention since 1986.

Radiation contamination later forced abandonment even outside the 30-km zone. High levels of cesium-137 detected years later caused further abandonment. In all, more than 120,000 people from 213 villages and cities were relocated outside contaminated areas.

In 2011, the director of the Chernobyl power plant, Ihor Gramotkin, was asked when the area would again be inhabitable. He responded, “At least 20,000 years” (Harrell and Marson).

A closer look at the site of the power plant in the 1986 image shows a red spot near the location of reactor number 4. The high brightness of those pixels indicates a high temperature heat source. This heat source and darkened strip that extends to the west indicate an explosion, with the reactor still radiating high heat three days later.

The radiation also affected wild plants and animals around Chernobyl. Pine forests soon died, cattails grew three heads, and wild animals declined in number. But in the coming years, as the short-lived radionuclides decayed and the longer-lived contaminants settled deep into the soil, the wildlife rebounded. Human abandonment also made habitat available for birds, deer, rodents, wolves, boar, and other animals. These populations appear to be increasing despite the extraordinarily high mutation rates caused by contamination in the food chain and by one of the highest background radiation levels in the world.


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