‘Quite odd’: coral and fish thrive on Bikini Atoll 70 years after nuclear tests


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘Quite odd’: coral and fish thrive on Bikini Atoll 70 years after nuclear tests” was written by Eleanor Ainge Roy, for theguardian.com on Friday 14th July 2017 22.42 UTC

The former island paradise of Bikini Atoll is slowing blooming back to life, 70 years after the United States dropped 23 nuclear bombs on it, including a device in 1954 that was 1,100-times larger than the Hiroshima atom bomb.

A team of scientists from Stanford University have been surprised to discover an abundance of marine life apparently thriving in the crater of Bikini Atoll, which was declared a nuclear wasteland after the bombings, with its 167 inhabitants relocated to other islands.

Steve Palumbi, a professor in marine sciences at the university, said the effects of radiation poisoning on ocean life have never been studied in-depth, and his team’s initial research suggests it is “remarkably resilient”.

Animals studied by scientists in and around the Chernobyl blast showed deformities and mutations, but the Stanford teams initial research suggest the marine life in Bikini may have fared significantly better.

Palumbi’s team discovered a diverse eco-system of animal life in and around the bomb crater, including coral as big as “cars”, hundreds of schools of fish including tuna, sharks and snapper, and coconut crabs devouring radioactive coconuts on the shore.

A Stanford researcher holds a crab at Bikini Atoll.
A Stanford researcher holds a crab at Bikini Atoll. Photograph: Steve Palumbi

Palumbi said to the naked eye the crabs, fish and coral of Bikini Atoll look perfectly normal and healthy, and some of the coral has been around for decades – with evidence it may have begun growing as soon as 10 years after the last bombs were dropped.

“The lagoon is full of schools of fish all swirling around the living coral. In a strange way they are protected by the history of this place, the fish populations are better than in some other places because they have been left alone, the sharks are more abundant and the coral are big. It is a remarkable environment, quite odd.”

Palumbi’s team concentrated their research efforts on the coral and coconut crabs – which are the size of hub caps – because they have long-life spans, allowing the scientists to delve into what effect the radiation exposure has had on the animals DNA after building up in their systems for many years.

Because fish have relatively short life-spans it is possible the worst-affected fish died off many decades ago, said Palumbi, and the fish living in Bikini Atoll today are only subject to low-levels of radiation exposure as they frequently swim in and out of the atoll.

A shark in waters around Bikini Atoll.
A shark in waters around Bikini Atoll. Photograph: Steve Palumbi

“This is the most destructive thing we have ever done to the ocean, dropping 23 atomic bombs on it, yet the ocean is really striving to come back to life,” said Palumbi.

“The fact there is life there and the life there is trying to come back from the most violent thing we’ve ever done to it is pretty hopeful.”

Even though plant, animal and ocean life is showing strong signs of recovery, humans are still unable to live and work on the atoll, besides a few caretakers who bring food and water supplies with them, and keep up the islands facilities.

A United Nations report in 2012 said the effects of radiation were long-lasting. Special rapporteur Calin Georgescu, in a report to the UN human rights council, said “near-irreversible environmental contamination” had led to the loss of livelihoods and many people continued to experience “indefinite displacement”.

The water cannot be drunk because of continued contamination, the seafood cannot be eaten, and plants cannot be farmed because of contaminated soil.

More than half of the 167 original inhabitants of Bikini Atoll have now died, and many went to their graves still longing to return to their homeland.

According to a paper by Timothy J. Jorgensen, associate professor of radiation medicine at Georgetown University, former residents of Bikini Atoll started showing cancers related to radiation exposure in the 1960s. Those down-wind of the explosions had burns and depressed blood counts.

Those on islands further afield showed elevated risk for cancers, particularly thyroid cancers and leukaemia, and have been involved in a protracted compensation claim with the United States for decades.

What happened to the Marshall Islanders next is a sad story of their constant relocation from island to island, trying to avoid the radioactivity that lingered for decades,” writes Jorgensen.

“Over the years following the testing, the Marshall Islanders living on the fallout-contaminated islands ended up breathing, absorbing, drinking and eating considerable amounts of radioactivity.”

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