Disaster and cleanup
The Red Forest is located in the zone of alienation; this area received the highest doses of radiation from the Chernobyl accident and the resulting clouds of smoke and dust, heavily polluted with radiation. The trees died from this radiation. The explosion and fire at the Chernobyl No. 4 reactor contaminated the soil, water and atmosphere with the radiation equivalent to 20 of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the post-disaster cleanup operations, a majority of the pine trees were bulldozed and buried in trenches by the "liquidators". The trenches were then covered with a thick carpet of sand and planted with pine saplings. Many fear that as the trees decay radiation will leach into the ground water. People have evacuated the contaminated zone around the Red Forest.
As humans were evacuated from the area in 1986, animals moved in despite the radiation. The flora and fauna of the Red Forest have been dramatically affected by the radioactive contamination that followed the accident. It seems that the biodiversity of the Red Forest has increased in the years following the disaster. There are reports of higher numbers of mutations in some of the plants in the area, leading to unsubstantiated tales of a "forest of wonders" containing many strangely mutated plants. Specifically, some trees have weirdly twisted branches that do not reach for the sky.
In the years after the disaster, some plants have displayed gigantism, in which the shape of the plants features remain normal, but its size becomes much larger than average. Gigantism and other plant abnormalities of the Red Forest can be found in the most radioactive parts of the zone of alienation.
The site of the Red Forest remains one of the most contaminated areas in the world. However, it has proved to be an astonishingly fertile habitat for many endangered species. The evacuation of the area surrounding the nuclear reactor has created a lush and unique wildlife refuge. In the 1996 BBC Horizon documentary "Inside Chernobyl's Sarcophagus", birds are seen flying in and out of large holes in the structure of the former nuclear reactor. The long-term impact of the fallout on the flora and fauna of the region is not fully known, as plants and animals have significantly different and varying radiologic tolerance. Some birds are reported with stunted tail feathers (which interferes with breeding). Storks, wolves, beavers, and eagles have been reported in the area. and joint International Atomic Energy Agency/WHO/UNDP press release Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident, International Atomic Energy Agency/World Health Organization/United Nations Development Programme, September 5, 2005 (pdf file)
Today, radiation levels in the Red Forest can be as high as one röntgen per hour, but levels of ten milliröntgens per hour are more common. More than 90% of the radioactivity of the Red Forest is concentrated in the soil.
Scientists are planning to use the radioactive ghost town and surrounding area as a unique laboratory for modeling the dispersal of radionuclides by the detonation of a dirty bomb or an attack with chemical or biological agents. The area offers an unparalleled opportunity to fully understand the passage of radioactive debris through an urban and rural area.
The nature of the area seems to have not only survived, but flourished due to significant reduction of human impact. The zone has become a "Radiological Reserve", a classic example of an involuntary park. There were thought to be cases of mutant deformity in animals of the Red Forest, but none have been proven, except partial albinism in swallows. Currently, there is concern about contamination of the soil with Strontium-90 and Caesium-137, which have half-lives of about 30 years. The highest levels of Caesium-137 are found in the surface layers of the soil where they are absorbed by plants, and insects living there today. Some scientists fear that radioactivity will affect the land for the next several generations.