Who is the big bad stressor?

You could argue that humans were more impactful than the radiation.

You could argue that humans were more impactful than the radiation.

Boxplot has been running this comic series on the science behind the video game Fallout — basically its about the reality of radiation. You know it’s not good for you, right? It doesn’t give you superpowers, and mutations in somatic tissues are called “cancers”?

But at the same time, there are a couple of places where radiation drove people away — Fukushima and Chernobyl come to mind — and we’re currently seeing a remarkable rebound, as nature comes rushing in to flourish. There’s the temptation to wonder if maybe radiation isn’t as bad as the scientists say it is.

Rather, though, we should be making the point in the panel above and to the right. Humans are much worse for the environment than we think.


  1. dianne says

    Nah. Biology can adapt to humans too. Think of the many new adaptations that bacteria have evolved in response to humanity and their antibiotics. Or the way wheat, corn, and cows are using humans to take over the world. (Who knew that “slow and tasty” was a winning evolutionary combination?)

  2. gijoel says

    Sigh, You put a popsci article in here didn’t you. Unfortunately, popsci automatically redirects me to their shitty Australian pop sci page. Which is months out of date. So I can’t read this article. Also PopSci Australia sucks.

  3. says

    You don’t need radiation. The DMZ between North and South Korea is serving as a de facto wildlife preserve for creatures like cranes and bears. The zone along the old border between East and West Germany had a similar effect.

  4. says

    I visited the reactors and the exclusion zone back in 2012. It’s not like you’d imagine – there are lots of people in there. And there have been lots of people in there. When I went to the vehicle graveyard (some of the BMPs I metered were kinda hot) there were huge numbers of parts missing from everything: carbs, cylinder heads, transmissions. Surely someone driving around Moscow with parts from there… No problem. Right? Every elevator room I went into, and the reactor buildings themselves, had all the copper stripped out. Probably eaten by copper bacteria. Right?

    All the apartments in the tall buildings have been looted. There are no electronics, dishes, silverware, etc.


  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 6:
    I thought it was just an urban myth, that radiation causes anything exposed to become radioactive. That actually, radiation is just particulate radioactive dust settling on stuff that cause the Geiger counters to react. Cleaned thoroughly anything from the fallout site would return to its previous nonradioactive status. So all the debris from the Chernobyl and Fukushima sites could be recovered after thorough cleaning.
    Then again, I’m obsessed with re using waste materials as a way of recycling… so green…

  6. Hairhead, whose head is entirely filled with Too Much Stuff says

    The freaking out about radiation damage to our bodies and reproductive systems is due to humans’ heightened sensitivity to birth defects and cancer. The animals who have repopulated the exclusion zone around Chernobyl suffer a slightly higher death rate due to cancers, and a doubled rate of serious birth defects. This doesn’t matter much to animals. A doubled birth-defect rate just means that mothers either kill or neglect a slightly higher number of offspring. These are removed quickly from the gene pool, and the normal-range offspring grow up and reproduce. Likewise with the higher cancer rate among adult animals. If the cancer holds off until the animals reproduce, the effect on the overall population is zero.

    Two things that have surprised scientists and other observes about the developments in the Chernobyl exclusion zone:

    1) The extreme rapidity of the degradation of human-created environments. “Nature” is taking over and obliterating human structures really quickly.

    2) The sheer amount of biomass in the area, now that humans are not monoculturing some beings and killling almost anything else. This is leading anthropologists and others to reassess the amount of biomass and number of species that older, pre-human ecosystems could support. All neat stuff!

  7. wcorvi says

    “Radiation” like “Chemicals” is a catchall term that really doesn’t mean anything. Not all radiation is bad – the sun’s radiation keeps earth habitable and warm. Even of the bad stuff, it is not all equal – alpha particles penetrate about an inch of air; betas are relatively harmless; gammas will destroy the stomach lining. It is slow neutrons that are so dangerous, can change genetic structure.

  8. unclefrogy says

    It was said that the radiation is mostly (what ever that means) in the dust and if you clean up the dust throughly the thing that was covered with the dust will return to a none radioactive state. Being “dust”, very small particles, it would I presume be hard to confine, capture and control and that it will remain radioactive for some considerable time. OK so where does the radioactive dust go? Does some of the constituents of the dust become absorbed and accumulate up the food chain?
    if we do not maintain our man made environment by actively killing the “weeds” and removing the animal pests “nature” comes back and if we do not maintain the weather seal on our building and other structures they dissolve and crumble into humus and mineral deposits. things last in the desert for so long because there ain’t much water it rains and snows in Russia.

  9. karpad says

    Myembal, that’s a bit deceptive, since it’s mammals.
    Ants alone would dwarf that.

  10. emergence says

    Does nuclear radiation ever cause useful germ-line mutations in wildlife instead of birth defects? I know that mutation breeding is used in agriculture, so couldn’t something similar happen after a nuclear blast? It doesn’t need to be anything like bugs the size of elephants or super-powered nuclear babies. It could just be stuff like realistic gigantism, tougher skin, altered limb proportions, or new metabolic functions.

    I think there may be a couple of flaws in my thinking. For one, does nuclear radiation even cause the types of mutations like duplications that can lead to new adaptations?

    Second, would just increasing the number of mutations per new zygote speed up how fast wildlife evolved?

  11. emergence says

    I’ve actually played a couple of the Fallout games, and a lot of the mutant creatures are actually caused by a transgenic virus that adapts organisms to post-apocalyptic conditions. Others are transgenic species that escaped captivity and established wild populations. When it comes to ghouls and radscorpions, I think that the developers knew that radiation wouldn’t do that in real life. They just put them in as a reference to 50s sci fi.