Early this year, the Doomsday Clock ticked forwards to two minutes to apocalypse – the closest it’s been since 1953 when the US and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs.
The Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists opted to move the clock forwards due to growing concerns about potential nuclear war, whether such events be borne of strife between the US and North Korea, Pakistan and India, or some other crisis point.
In the past, we have seen the immediate effects of radiation, through nuclear bombs or power station failures. By visiting radioactive sites like these, enterprising scientists can find out about the long-term impact of radiation on the environment, so we know what to expect in the event that someone pushes the big red button.
One place that might offer some clues is Bikini Atoll, a ring-shaped coral reef located in the Marshall Islands. In 1946, the US evacuated Bikini’s residents, then spent 12 years testing its nuclear firepower by detonating 23 nuclear bombs there, including one that packed 1,000 times the power of the one that devastated Hiroshima and was the largest nuclear device that the US ever exploded. It’s a place, you might think, that’d be completely devoid of life to this day.
But in 2016, Steve Palumbi, professor of marine sciences at Stanford University in California, visited Bikini to document the marine life. He first got interested in Bikini while researching his book The Extreme Life Of The Sea. He learned that the age of organisms could be determined by measuring their artificial carbon-14 levels caused by hydrogen bomb tests in the middle of the last century. So when he was invited by the US television station PBS to do a documentary series called The Big Pacific, he told the producers that he wanted to go to Bikini Atoll.
Rather than finding it barren, he discovered a diverse array of species including corals, fish, sharks and crabs thriving in the atoll’s waters. Undoubtedly, the complete absence of humans for more than seven decades has helped create an undisturbed territory in which wildlife could flourish.
“When you started looking at the reports and hints, we were expecting to see some recovery – we just had no idea how extensive,” he says. And according to his team’s observations, the organisms appeared quite normal, with no obvious mutant characteristics. “There are a lot of strange things there – like coconuts the size and shape of zucchinis [courgettes] on the trees,” he says. “But can you really pin these things on radiation? It’s not all that clear.”
Ukraine provides another example of the surprising ways that life can recover after exposure to radiation. Early on 26 April 1986, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, due to a fatal combination of engineering glitch and human error. Between the explosion and the subsequent fire, which raged for 10 days, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster spewed about 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than what was released by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs…
This is an extract from issue 322 of BBC Focus magazine.
Subscribe and get the full article delivered to your door, or download the BBC Focus app to read it on your smartphone or tablet. Find out more
Follow Science Focus on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Flipboard