What happens to the environment when a large, industrialized country is consumed by war? Ukraine is finding out. While concern about human lives remains paramount, Russia’s war on that country’s environment matters. The fate of Ukraine after the conflict is over is likely to depend on the survival of its natural resources as well as on its human-made infrastructure – on its forests, rivers, and wildlife, as well as its roads, power plants, and cities.
Some 30 percent of the country’s protected areas, covering 3 million acres, have been bombed, polluted, burned, or hit by military maneuvers, according to its Ministry of the Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. Some of the most intense fighting of the war has been in forests along the Donets River in the east.
Fires have raged across Ukraine, which is almost the size of Texas. Satellite monitors spotted more than 37,000 fires in the first four months of the invasion, affecting approximately a quarter-million acres of forests and other natural ecosystems. Most were started by shelling, and a third were in protected areas, says the Ukraine Nature Conservation Group (UNCG), a non-profit coalition of the country’s scientists and activists.
Away from the country’s forests, the war has caused other kinds of environmental damage. Rare steppe and island ecosystems in the south have been pummeled, threatening endemic grassland plants and insects; in the north, the exclusion zone around the stricken Chernobyl nuclear reactors has been left largely unattended; and rivers across the Donbas conflict zone in the east are being polluted by wrecked industrial facilities, sewage works, and overflowing coal mines. Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, sits on the front line, with its future in the balance and growing fears of radiation releases. Meanwhile, under the cover of martial law, there may be an upsurge in uncontrolled logging of ancient forests in the Carpathian Mountains.
Scientists are especially concerned about the steppe grasslands that once comprised most of southern and eastern Ukraine. Just 3 percent remain. Most of the rest have been plowed, turning pre-invasion Ukraine into one of the world’s largest exporters of grain. [Continue reading…]