by Fred Pearce: As the war in Ukraine drags on, scientists are increasingly concerned about the environmental consequences of the destruction…
From forests ignited by shelling to wrecked factories spewing pollution to precarious nuclear plants, the long-term impacts could be profound.
hat 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.
“Practically everything that was there has been destroyed,” a biologist says of a biodiverse island that was bombarded.
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.
This development meant that many plant species native to the steppes were already rare. Now, botanists at the UNCG have listed 20 steppe species that they believe may disappear due to the war. Most, they say, are endemic to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, “the largest center of endemism on the territory of Ukraine,” with 44 plant species found nowhere else on Earth.
Crimea has been occupied by Russian forces since they first invaded the east of Ukraine in 2014. Ecological management has subsequently broken down there. Forest fires spread out of control through this summer on the Kinburn spit, a nature reserve at the western end of the peninsula. Local fire chiefs said the Russian military refused them admittance.
The spit is one of the few surviving homes of the endemic Tapinoma kinburni steppe ant. “All the places where scientists have seen [the ant] are now on fire,” claims the UNCG.
While the Russian invasion has been the main cause of ecological destruction, ecologists fear that the Ukraine military’s attempts to retake land could sometimes be at least as damaging. They cite what happened on Snake Island in the Black Sea, known locally as Zmiinyi Island. In June, Ukraine retook the island after four months of Russian occupation and several weeks of heavy bombardment. The capture was widely heralded as a potential turning point in the war. But the reoccupation left the island burned and littered with toxic munitions.
Sometimes described as a barren rocky outcrop, the island has in recent times recorded almost 200 species of flowering plants and been visited by more than 200 species of birds. But “practically everything that was there has been destroyed,” Vasyliuk Oleksiy, a biologist and director of the UNCG told Yale Environment 360.
The greatest concern at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant could be the spent reactor fuel sitting in cooling ponds.
Conservationists are also concerned about potentially losing biodiversity in western Ukraine, where thousands of refugees from the fighting have this summer been camping in protected areas, including the Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, which reputedly contains the world’s largest ancient beech forest, and the Synevir National Nature Park, which has a brown-bear sanctuary.
During the Soviet era, prior to 1991, Ukraine became increasingly dependent on nuclear power for its energy. By 2022, half of Ukraine’s electricity came from four large nuclear power plants. But Russian forces have now made the plants strategic targets for occupation. The idea appears to be to deprive Ukraine of electricity while creating safe spaces for its soldiers and equipment. They reason that their adversaries will not try to bomb ammunition dumps, tank parks, or barracks slotted in among nuclear reactors.
Early on, Russia invaded the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant near the front line on the banks of the Dnieper River, installing artillery to fire at nearby Ukrainian positions. Ukraine claims that the occupiers have also mined the site. Both sides have accused the other of shelling near the plant in recent weeks.
Part of the Zaporizhzhia plant, the largest in Europe, has continued to be operated by its Ukrainian staff. Its six pressurized-water reactors are of a safer design than the notorious Chernobyl reactors, with armored containment intended to survive a direct hit by an airliner. Mark Wenman, an expert on nuclear fuels at Imperial College London, says “the likelihood of a serious nuclear release is small.”
But a greater concern could be the state of spent reactor fuel sitting outside the containment in cooling ponds. Either a direct hit or loss of power for cooling could cause a large release of radioactive water, says Ross Pell of the Centre for Science and Security Studies, Kings College London.
For months, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency has been demanding access for its inspectors to assess damage to facilities, monitor waste dumps, and assess radiation risks – but has had no success. There are growing concerns “lest there be a terrible accident,” as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it.
In the first days of the invasion, as they pushed towards Kyiv, Russian forces also occupied the Chernobyl nuclear site, which houses the remains of the reactor that burned during the notorious nuclear accident there in 1986, and the surrounding thousand-square-mile radioactive exclusion zone. When they left five weeks later, Russian soldiers looted fire engines, computers, and radiation monitoring equipment, while leaving mines and munitions spread across the exclusion zone.
In the Donbas region, wrecked sewage works gush their contents into rivers and damaged pipelines fill wetlands with oil.
Superficially at least, nature had done well in the exclusion zone since 1986, with tree cover spreading and wildlife proliferating. In 2016, the government declared most of it a permanent biosphere reserve. Until the invasion, there were plans for an even larger cross-border reserve, stretching into neighboring Belarus.
But things look different now. Greenpeace has said it found raised radiation levels in some places where Russian troops had dug trenches in the exclusion zone.
“Most of the exclusion zone was damaged by the invasion and may be contaminated with unexploded ordnance and mines,” according to Oleksandr Galushchenko, director of the biosphere reserve. The larger mammals that constantly move around the reserve – wolves, deer, brown bears, lynx, elk, and recently reintroduced bison – are at particular risk, he says.
The forests in the zone remain a radioactive tinderbox that, in the event of fires, could send radioactive isotopes on the winds towards Kyiv. The risks of that happening are now much greater, says the UNCG’s forest campaigner Yehor Hrynyk. With fire-fighting equipment looted and much of the exclusion zone dangerous for firefighters to enter, some 65,000 acres has burned since the invasion, and fires continue to smolder in underground peat.
Monitoring of the exclusion zone for fires and radiation has virtually ceased since the invasion, says Sergey Gaschak, deputy director of the International Radioecology Laboratory at Chernobyl, which has been monitoring nature there since 1998. “We have a lot of difficulties getting into the exclusion zone. I can only do office work now,” he says.
There are also concerns about non-nuclear pollution due to the invasion, especially in the Donbas region, the country’s eastern industrial heartland. It was partly annexed by pro-Russian separatists in 2014 and is currently largely in Russian hands. Many industrial plants are damaged or abandoned; wrecked sewage works gush their contents into rivers; damaged pipelines are filling wetlands with oil; and toxic military scrap is spread across the land.
Across the Donbas, says Oleksiy, “the rivers are polluted, but no one from the state can enter the occupied territories or where hostilities are going on. No one has done any research and probably won’t for many years.” A particular concern is the many coal mines abandoned after 2014. With pumping of water halted, they have so far released some 650,000 acre-feet of polluted mine water into the environment, according to Serhii Ivaniuta of the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv.
Russian bombardment of a steel plant could have released tens of thousands of tons of hydrogen sulfide into the Sea of Azov.
A few of the flooded mines are radiological hazards. For instance, Soviet scientists carried out a controlled atomic explosion at the Yunkom Mine in Donetsk in 1979. The waste remains underground. Since the pumps were turned off in 2018, the mine has overflowed into nearby underground water reserves used for drinking, according to a study by Daniella Marx and colleagues at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
Many also fear the long-term toxic legacy of the giant Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, which was bombarded for many weeks before falling to the Russians in May. The works was already a notorious defiler of local soils, air, and rivers. The Russian bombardment could have released tens of thousands of tons of hydrogen sulfide into the Sea of Azov with unknown ecological consequences.
Other ecological damage may be taking place at the hands of Ukrainians, under the aegis of martial law. Forest campaigners fear for the country’s ancient beech forests in the Carpathian Mountains in the west of the country, where logging continues and the timber is being trucked to eager markets in the European Union.
The UNCG’s Hrynyk says that foresters successfully lobbied the country’s legislators to relax rules on logging as part of emergency legislation passed at the start of the invasion. This ended the “silence season,” a 10-week period in spring when logging was banned to protect wildlife breeding, and curbed independent scrutiny of logging activities. “In many regions, it is now illegal to enter state forests,” says Hrynyk.
Past investigations by the U.K.-based environmental investigation group Earthsight and others have shown extensive corruption in the trade of wood from Ukraine to the EU, with state officials turning a blind eye to illegal logging. Data collected by Earthsight show that EU imports of wood from Ukraine in 2022 have so far been almost identical to previous years. But Hrynyk believes this could go into overdrive as the conflict continues, since the government sees forestry as a quick way to maintain export revenues. “It looks like some huge businessmen are trying to make profits during the war,” Hrynyk says. “Legal or illegal, logging is a huge threat to the remnants of natural forests of Ukraine.”
War can occasionally create space for nature by damaging environmentally destructive infrastructure. At the start of the invasion, as lines of Russian tanks drove towards Kyiv, Ukraine’s troops tried to halt the advance by opening a Soviet-era dam on the Irpin River. The ploy worked, and at the same time, it inundated 32,000 acres of the river’s former floodplain. Now some ecologists want the inundation to be made permanent, to revive a rich wetland ecosystem that was destroyed when the dam was built. “We believe that it is necessary to preserve the flooded territory on the Irpin River exactly as it is now,” says Oleksiy.
Similarly, in eastern Ukraine, the country’s forces opened the gates of the Oskil dam to thwart a Russian effort to cross the region’s largest river, the Donets. The dam has been an important source of water supplies in the Donbas. But ecologists are now arguing that the temporary restoration of the river’s natural floodplain should be made permanent.
Environmentalists say that in looking to recovery, the Ukrainian government is prioritizing big projects over natural restoration.
Ukraine also shelled the Russian-occupied hydroelectric dam complex at Kakhovskaya on the River Dnieper in July. It apparently did little harm, but pro-Russian media claim a successful strike against the dam would cause catastrophic damage to communities downstream. Eugene Simonov, a Russian environmental activist and founder of the advocacy group Rivers Without Boundaries, who is currently at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, says that either side might at some point blow up the dam to hamper military movements and sever connections between the two banks.
This is controversial. “Hydraulic warfare … should be considered a war crime,” says Josh Klemm of International Rivers, a California-based nonprofit. “War is not the way to achieve the resuscitation of wetlands,” agrees Nicholas Hildyard of a UK-based environmental justice group, The Corner House.
The future of these dams could become central to the growing debate about how to manage post-war environmental recovery in Ukraine. At an international conference in Lugano Switzerland in July, the UNCG and other environmental groups claimed that current proposals from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government give priority to construction projects over natural restoration, such as restoring forest seed banks, building rehabilitation centers for wildlife, and creating infrastructure for national parks.
The UNCG’s Oleksiy warns that the government is also seeking money from the European Union and others for environmentally destructive forms of economic reconstruction, including hydroelectric dams and mines and an expansion of logging in the Carpathian Mountains and agriculture in the steppe grasslands. “These are not plans for revitalization, but for the destruction of the environment,” he says.