Cornelia and her Mutant Bugs

29 Jul

Reading through a recent BBC article about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I suddenly remembered a blog post that I’d started a couple months ago but never got around to finishing.

I’ll get back to that post in a minute. But first, a quick summary of the BBC article, which follows a team of biologists working in the 30 km exclusion zone that surrounds the abandoned nuclear planet. Their mission: to find out how the local wildlife is coping 25 years after the accident.

An abandoned elephant slide inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Credit: David McMillan

These scientists conclude that the nuclear fallout has had a negative impact on the local ecosystem. “In the highly contaminated areas, we see fewer than half as many species as there are in the cleaner parts of the zone,” says Tim Mousseau, the team leader.

But that’s just one side of the picture. After the explosion, the radioactive dust settled in a haphazard manner, leading to some areas being much more contaminated than others. This patchy dust coverage could explain why many biologists believe that the region is actually teeming with wildlife.

For example, a healthy ecosystem has been discovered in the most contaminated lake in the exclusion zone, Glubokoye. It’s thought that the disappearance of humans from the area has allowed this aquatic community to thrive.

“Whether radiation is damaging wildlife in Chernobyl is still an open question,” says radioecologist Jim Smith. “Now the people have moved out, it’s clear that everyday human occupation and activity did much more damage than the contamination left by the accident.”

This debate took me back to my abandoned blog post about an artist called Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. Cornelia’s speciality is drawing bugs. She spent most of her career as a scientific illustrator, meticulously drawing insect specimens at Zürich’s Natural History Museum. The Chernobyl catastrophe, however, sent her career in a new direction.

Two of Cornelia's illustrations...a harlequin bug and a ladybird beetle

Soon after the nuclear accident, worried by news reports about the scale of the disaster, Cornelia decided to find out how the insect world had been affected. Armed with a map of the European fallout distribution, she headed to an area of southern Sweden where high radioactivity had been recorded and, once there, began to draw the bugs that she spotted.

What she discovered shocked her. Cornelia identified a large number of insects with misshapen or malformed body parts – mutations which would barely be visible to the untrained eye. Ever since, Cornelia has devoted her spare time to studying the insects that live around nuclear power plants, at sites including Sellafield in the UK and Three Mile Island in the USA.

A scorpionfly with a twisted right wing and deformed abdomen, found near the Leibstadt nuclear plant in Switzerland, 1988

Intrigued by her paintings, I got in touch with Cornelia to ask how the scientific community had reacted to her work. “They thought my findings were ridiculous,” she said. “They were sure, as they still are, that the radiation is not dangerous. The Swiss scientists were very aggressive.” Indeed, being snubbed by scientists is a running theme in Cornelia’s biography.

Clearly, the scientific consensus is that such low-level radiation is too weak to have any visible effect on these insects. Yet Cornelia remains convinced that vulnerable bugs are susceptible to even small amounts of radiation.

A tree bug found near the Hanford plutonium plant in Washington, USA. The right feeler lacks a section

Granted, these paintings may lack scientific rigour, but they certainly provide compelling evidence of disturbed insect life near nuclear plants. Only time will tell which side wins this debate: as the BBC article revealed, there’s still a lot to understand about the ecological impacts of nuclear radiation.

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One Response to “Cornelia and her Mutant Bugs”

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  1. Twitted by d_becks - August 3, 2011

    […] This post was Twitted by d_becks […]

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