Fire evolution in the radioactive forests of Ukraine and Belarus: future risks for the population and the environment

Authors

  • N. Evangeliou,

    1. CEA-UVSQ-CNRS UMR 8212, Institut Pierre et Simon Laplace, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE), L'Orme des Merisiers, F-91191 Gif sur Yvette Cedex, France
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    • Present address: NILU (Norsk institutt for luftforskning), Instituttveien 18, 2007 Kjeller, Norway. E-mail: Nikolaos.Evangeliou@nilu.no

  • Y. Balkanski,

    1. CEA-UVSQ-CNRS UMR 8212, Institut Pierre et Simon Laplace, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE), L'Orme des Merisiers, F-91191 Gif sur Yvette Cedex, France
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  • A. Cozic,

    1. CEA-UVSQ-CNRS UMR 8212, Institut Pierre et Simon Laplace, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE), L'Orme des Merisiers, F-91191 Gif sur Yvette Cedex, France
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  • W. M. Hao,

    1. Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, Rocky Mountain Research Station Forest Service, Missoula, Montana 59808-9361 USA
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  • F. Mouillot,

    1. CEFE UMR 5175, CNRS, Université de Montpellier, Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier, EPHE-IRD, 1919 route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier Cedex 5, France
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  • K. Thonicke,

    1. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), P.O. Box 60 12 03, 14412 Potsdam, Germany
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  • R. Paugam,

    1. King's College London, London, United Kingdom
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  • S. Zibtsev,

    1. National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine, Kiev, Ukraine
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  • T. A. Mousseau,

    1. Department of Biological Sciences, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina 29208 USA
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  • R. Wang,

    1. CEA-UVSQ-CNRS UMR 8212, Institut Pierre et Simon Laplace, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE), L'Orme des Merisiers, F-91191 Gif sur Yvette Cedex, France
    2. Laboratory for Earth Surface Processes, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871 China
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  • B. Poulter,

    1. CEA-UVSQ-CNRS UMR 8212, Institut Pierre et Simon Laplace, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE), L'Orme des Merisiers, F-91191 Gif sur Yvette Cedex, France
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  • A. Petkov,

    1. Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, Rocky Mountain Research Station Forest Service, Missoula, Montana 59808-9361 USA
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  • C. Yue,

    1. CEA-UVSQ-CNRS UMR 8212, Institut Pierre et Simon Laplace, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE), L'Orme des Merisiers, F-91191 Gif sur Yvette Cedex, France
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  • P. Cadule,

    1. CEA-UVSQ-CNRS UMR 8212, Institut Pierre et Simon Laplace, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE), L'Orme des Merisiers, F-91191 Gif sur Yvette Cedex, France
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  • B. Koffi,

    1. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Air and Climate Unit, Ispra, Italy
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  • J. W. Kaiser,

    1. King's College London, London, United Kingdom
    2. European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts, Reading, United Kingdom
    3. Max-Planck-Institute für Chemie, Mainz, Germany
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  • A. P. Møller

    1. Laboratoire d'Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution, CNRS UMR 8079, Université Paris-Sud, Bâtiment 362, F-91405 Orsay Cedex, France
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  • Corresponding Editor: A. T. Classen.

Abstract

In this paper, we analyze the current and future status of forests in Ukraine and Belarus that were contaminated after the nuclear disaster in 1986. Using several models, together with remote-sensing data and observations, we studied how climate change in these forests may affect fire regimes. We investigated the possibility of 137Cs displacement over Europe by studying previous fire events, and examined three fire scenarios that depended on different emission altitudes of 137Cs, assuming that 10% of the forests were affected by fires. Field measurements and modeling simulations confirmed that numerous radioactive contaminants are still present at these sites in extremely large quantities.

Forests in Eastern Europe are characterized by large, highly fire-prone patches that are conducive to the development of extreme crown fires. Since 1986, there has been a positive correlation between extreme fire events and drought in the two contaminated regions. Litter carbon storage in the area has doubled since 1986 due to increased tree mortality and decreased decomposition rates; dead trees and accumulating litter in turn can provide fuel for wildfires that pose a high risk of redistributing radioactivity in future years. Intense fires in 2002, 2008, and 2010 resulted in the displacement of 137Cs to the south; the cumulative amount of 137Cs re-deposited over Europe was equivalent to 8% of that deposited following the initial Chernobyl disaster. However, a large amount of 137Cs still remains in these forests, which could be remobilized along with a large number of other dangerous, long-lived, refractory radionuclides. We predict that an expanding flammable area associated with climate change will lead to a high risk of radioactive contamination with characteristic fire peaks in the future. Current fire-fighting infrastructure in the region is inadequate due to understaffing and lack of funding. Our data yield the first cogent predictions for future fire incidents and provide scientific insights that could inform and spur evidence-based policy decisions concerning highly contaminated regions around the world, such as those of Chernobyl.

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