Novaya Zemlya: birds, animals adapt to nuclear test site


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who recently returned from the nuclear test site on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, confirmed that radiation there was lower than in many large cities - 7-13 microroentgen per hour versus 18-25 in central Moscow. The radioactive atmosphere at Russia's sole nuclear test site is monitored using various methods, including with the help of deer, whose population has so far reached the natural limit of 5,000-6,000.

Paradoxically, the revival of the deer population on Novaya Zemlya may be called an "environmental side effect" of the nuclear test site. Restricted areas always contribute to the preservation of fauna - take the Chernobyl area, which has been restricted for 20 years and whose flora and fauna are now thriving. This indicates that radiation is less harmful to fauna than human aggression.

"Collecting large numbers of seagull and guillemot eggs, as well as hunting birds, was the most destructive action people have ever done on Novaya Zemlya," said Gennady Khakhin, head of the Center for Wild Animal Health of the All-Russia Research Institute of Nature Conservation at the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources. "The most alarming data from a survey of seabird colonies came in the 1950s - there was a tiny number of them." Paradoxically, the Soviet government's decision to establish a nuclear test site on Novaya Zemlya saved the birds from extinction.

"However, the effect of nuclear explosions on the local environment has been understudied," Khakhin said. "I am not talking about the legitimacy of the nuclear test site here, rather I am saying we should study the local environmental situation more thoroughly." It is clear that contamination from nuclear tests has had an effect on the local soil, rocks and plants, and radio nuclides have penetrated birds and animals. Fortunately, the expert said, the concentration of harmful substances on the whole is within admissible limits.

Novaya Zemlya is the largest archipelago in the European Arctic, and occupies an area of 83,000 square kilometers. The islands stretch from north to south in a 925km arch, separating the Barents and the Kara seas. Half of the northern section of Novaya Zemlya is a polar desert covered in ice, while tundra occupies the remainder of the archipelago. The coast of Novaya Zemlya boasts diverse biota - there are rookeries of marine animals and the famous bird bazaars.

"The birds nesting on Novaya Zemlya are the healthiest in the Barents Sea region, including the Russian, Norwegian and Swedish areas," said Khakhin. This, at least, is surprising: how can it be so if nature was long subjected to radiation? One hundred and thirty two bombs have been tested at the nuclear test site built here 54 years ago. With the assistance of Admiral Gennady Zolotukhin researchers made four expeditions to the archipelago from 1994 to 2001 as part of the Russian-Norwegian project to assess seabird colonies. The research showed that bird bazaars on the Novaya Zemlya islands were growing.

Gennady Khakhin also took part in the Russian-Norwegian expeditions. "Certainly, the effect the Russian nuclear test site has on the whole area alarms our Northern European neighbors. We conducted thorough research and monitored the bird colonies using the world's best methods," he said.

Experts confirmed the existence of large bird bazaars in the mouths of the Gribovaya, the Bezymyannaya and the Arkhangelskaya rivers and in the Vilkitskogo Strait. Researchers concluded that the size of the colonies was similar to that of other key bird-nesting areas around the world. They also revealed that the population of thick-billed guillemots was dwindling, but nuclear tests were hardly to blame for that; rather, food supplies in the entire Barents Sea area had deteriorated.

Though civilian researchers have not yet sufficiently studied the impact of military facilities on the environment, researchers are talking about potential peaceful functions for military test sites. The "restricted" areas allow wildlife to flourish: bird colonies grow in undisturbed habitats. Some species have adjusted to the military presence on the islands. Swans, for example, do not fear the sound of aircraft engines, and large numbers of them nest along flight routes.

The last bomb was tested on Novaya Zemlya on October 24, 1990, and the test ground has been idle for 16 years now. In 1996, the de facto moratorium transformed into de jure, with Russia's signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. No explosions shake the test site, which, however, remains on stand-by - only the so-called sub-critical tests envisioned by the treaty are conducted.

"The special status given to Novaya Zemlya by the presence of the Northern Nuclear Test Site necessitates a monitoring system on the archipelago," Khakhin said. However, no monitoring is possible without environmental benchmarks - a system of conservation areas and aquatic preserves. That is why researchers have proposed converting the nuclear test site into a nature preserve or a national park. "After we have started to take special biotechnological measures and conduct environmental surveys, hunting may be allowed on the islands," said Khakhin.

After the end of World War II, in 1947, efforts were made to set up a branch of the Seven Islands Nature Reserve on Novaya Zemlya. In 1950, this plan was sacrificed for the country's military interests. So far, a compromise has been maintained between the nuclear test site and wildlife.

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