Red Forest
A sandbox of the ecological Apocalypse

What is the Chernobyl Zone from the ecologist’s point of view? Before all, it is a forest. And, also rivers and swaps, some open landscapes on the places that used to be agricultural fields. And just a little of that one could call a human civilization — cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl, Chernobyl-2 OTH Radar site, dozens of abandoned villages, roads and bridges, radioactive waste burials, checkpoints and so on. All of this takes not more than 10% of territory of the Zone.

Contrary to this, forests cover more than 60%, and continue their expansion, sprawling over fields, islands and villages — so taking virtually any spot good for vegetation. A forest has been here since beginning of time, — when the ice shield of the last Ice Age moved to North, this space was taken by water. The modern landscape still keeps marks of it in a form of multiple sandy hills. When the water came down, the forest came instead. There is an opinion that the process of colonization by the forest of space, which the glacier left, is still ongoing in Europe.


Historically, the forest cover was not permanent, however, up to the 18th century it developed following its logic. Since the intensive development of Polissya region started, natural forests began to be reduced, ending with just 10% of the woodland remained in 19th century comparing to one existing today.

As for today, most of woodlands in Chernobyl Zone consist of pine monocultures, planted in the middle of the 20th century for the lumber industry. These men-made woods are mostly seen by visitors while driving by local highways.

It is still possible to recognize lines and order of trees, though more than 3 decades of low presence of people on site make their effect — trees fall down, get broken due to winds and snowfalls, get burned in forest fires and receive damage during outbreaks of insects. It is not a destruction — but more a return of an old order, that was here before active impact of human. In result, a monoculture transform to a mixed forest of trees of various ages and types.

The Red Forest

Notice: despite in English language the form “Red Forest” became canonical, it is more correct to call it “Ginger Forest” or “Rusty Forest”, as more accurate from the scope of a meaning to Ukrainian original Рудий ліс (“Rudyi Lis”).

The Red Forest is the most famous area among the forest of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Actually, why especially it? Why not the ages-old dark oak forests of the upper reaches of the Braginka River, or the park-like oaks of the river Uzh surroundings? Or the mysterious planting of spruce, standing rudder in the abandoned forestry?

The answer consists of two parts. First, it was created by disaster, so it is the very direct effect of radioactive exposure. Second — what really is going on there, only the initiated ones know. Visitors leave the vehicle near the stele of the city of Pripyat, they are shown a row of pine trees that stand behind the railway. They also told that it is dirty there. Very dirty. Perhaps all that ordinary visitors of the zone know about this place.

The "Red Forest" is a toponym that appeared in 1987. This is part of the pine forest that bounds the Chernobyl NPP from the west side. The western track of radioactive fallout from the destroyed reactor passed over it, long and thin as a stylet. The levels of radioactive contamination were so severe, that they ultimately led to the death of the pine. Trees did not die immediately, that took the time within a year, during which the green coniferous forest turned into a red-colored. Needles became rusty-colored after a tree died and stopped producing green chlorophyll pigment. This pigment is the basis of the plant's energy system, using it, an energy flux of sunlight turns to a controlled energy of chemical compounds. In general, the red color is a sign of the unequivocal death of a tree.

The area of the Red Forest is small - about 160 km2. Depending on the biological effects, it is divided into four sub-zones of damage:

  • Lethally damaged zone. All the trees here died. The levels of absorbed doses during 1986-1987 here were approximately 8,000 - 10,000 rad. It is around 5 kms2.
  • Severely damaged zone of 38 kms2. Around 25-40% of the trees died and all the undergrowth. Doses were around 1,000 — 8,000 rad.
  • Zone of average damage. Here a damage of undergrowth and anomalies of trees were spotted. Doses were in between 400—500 rad. The size of this zone is approximately 119 kms2
  • Lightly damaged zone. There were no obvious damages to the trees, but growth anomalies were recorded. Levels of absorbed doses were around 50-120 rad.

Problematic spot

The Red Forest almost immediately became a problem, as the forest itself very well detain radioactive fallout. Therefore, it has become a powerful source of radiation. This was not very good, considering that several important transport routes passed through it. At the beginning, an earth shaft along one of the roads was built to shield radiation. This did not help much, besides it was a source of potential pollution in case of a forest fire. But later a decision was made simply destroy, dump and bury it. These works were performed by military reservists in the winter of 1987. Starting from the perimeter of the NPP and up to the old road from Chernobyl to Pripyat, the forest was destroyed in this way.

A sandbox of the ecological Apocalypse

Red forest is one of the few places where the degradation of ecosystems, the death of animals and plants has come as a result of radiation exposure. In addition to the death of the main forest formator, there was a decrease in the number of mouse-like rodents and soil fauna. As to the reasons for the drop in the number of birds, scientists are not sure — they may have left the forest as a result of the death of the pine. Through the Red Forest you can also realize some of the scale of what happened. The fact is that the radiosensitivity of the pine is the same as of man. Therefore, isolines of tree fall out on the map are the most real fields of death.

In 1989, researchers noted the return of the main groups of animals to this place. Apocalypse turned out to be not only local, but also short-lived. Already in the late nineties almost all large animals of the zone — wolves, Przhevalsky horses, elks and deers were encountered here.

The unique open-air laboratory

The accident gave a unique chance for full-scale radioecological research. The whole zone became an open-air laboratory. But the Red Forest was the site where biological and ecological reactions to the most shock effects of radiation were investigated.

Since the late 80's, a scientific infrastructure has been created in the Red Forest. There appeared driveway access roads. For various experiments and observations, temporary structures were built — cells, aviaries, duplexes, trapping grooves for mice. Later, a capital structure appeared — the so-called Micedrome, fenced with dug concrete slabs and a wire mesh square polygon of 100x100 meters. Probably, it was created to isolate the local mouse population from the influence of migrants — such an iron curtain. Later the polygon "Institute of Agricultural Radiology" was built. It is a real scientific base — with a house for rest and primary processing of materials, with many units of stationary equipment for studying radiation parameters.

The main problem of radioecology researchers in the exclusion zone since the late 1990s is the deficit of dirty places. It sounds paradoxical, does not it? But this is the truth of life. Since the accident, the background has decreased by two or three orders. Therefore, the Red Forest is the last bastion for scientists, which still holds.

By Denis Vishnevsky,
Head of department of flora and fauna ecology of Chernobyl Radioecological Reserve

Notice: a title picture depicts a part of Red Forest, where already post-1987 trees were damaged by forest fires several years ago. We added it as a visual reference of how the original affected trees looked like.

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