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The Red Forest in Chornobyl, Ukraine (often misspelt as Chernobyl), is one of the biggest mysteries of the exclusion zone that draws both scientific minds and enthusiastic souls of tourists. In fact, the area, also known as Rusty Forest or “Rudyi Lis” in Ukrainian, is extremely dangerous. Surrounding the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, it received dozens of tons of radiation after the catastrophe. But what exactly happened then?

How the forest turned red

April 28, 1986, became the day of one of the biggest tragedies of humankind. As a result of the explosion on the Chornobyl (not Chernobyl) nuclear power plant, the so-called Chornobyl disaster, radioactive contamination was released into the atmosphere and huge environmental areas. One of the pine forest’s sections, lying closest to the plant, was the first to take the strike. It received the most significant radiation dosage. Many of the trees there died just instantly. Because of this radiation “footprint”, they became rusty red. That is how the forest earned its name.

Consequences of the radiation effect on the forest after the Chornobyl disaster in 1986
Source: The Nuclear Flower

What happened to the Red Forest after the disaster?

Then, it was decided to cut down contaminated pines. As the trees there absorbed enormous amounts of radiation, they represented a considerable danger for people and the environment. At any moment, a fire could arise in the forest. If so, it could cause another radioactive cloud. The destroyed trees were buried in special trenches covered with sand. New pine saplings were planted and remain there until today. 

Can you walk through the Red Forest in Chornobyl?

As people in the surrounding areas were evacuated, the Red Forest became a surprisingly fertile habitat for flora and fauna, including endangered species. Its biodiversity has generally increased a lot since 1986, though the forest remains one of the most contaminated areas in the world. Scientists still study how plants and animals, though they have varying radiation tolerance, could survive in the forest. Different species of birds, including storks and eagles, and also wolves, beavers, deer, and wild boars, wild horses, were reported in the area. 

The highest level of radiation, around 90%, is concentrated in the forest’s soil, where plants and insects absorb it. Another danger that remains today is forest fires, which might cause the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Ukraine constantly conducts measurements of radiation levels in the area, tests the areas for radionuclides, trains firefighters and has wildfire prevention. 

Mapping of the Red Forest’s radioactive contamination as of 2019 made by
the UK’s National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR) using drones.
Illustration: NCNR/University of Bristol

Although Chornobyl is one of the famous tourist spots, a bit extreme one, it is strictly prohibited for non-experts to enter the Red Forest because of life danger. The good news is that with the reduction of human impact on the forest, it became an involuntary wildlife park — one of the unique places on the planet. 

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