Wildfire Near Chernobyl

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2007 Aerial view Chernobyl nuclear power plant with sarcophagus. (Chernobyl, Ukraine). By IAEA Imagebank (04710018) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

A large wildfire has scorched an area just 15 kilometers west-southwest of the Chernobyl nuclear power complex, a site infamous for a meltdown in 1986 that is considered the world’s deadliest and costliest nuclear power plant accident.  This is uncomfortably close: anything within 30 kilometers of the power plant site lies within the so-called “Zone of Alienation” where Ukrainian scientists believe human habitation will not be possible for at least 20,000 years.  Alien nation, indeed.

This burned area is well within the exclusion zone, raising legitimate fears that  radioactive ash was being lofted into the air and could be deposited many miles away across Europe. 

MODIS satellite image showing smoke plume blowing north from a large wildfire burning about 15km west-southwest of the Chernobyl nuclear power complex in Ukraine. Image taken April 28, 2015. Natural-color composite courtesy MODIS Rapid Response Team.

MODIS satellite imagery gives us a look at what’s happening. The last clear image of the fire was taken on April 28, although we also got a partially cloud-obscured image today (April 30).  On the 28th, the plume of smoke was moving directly to the north from a burned area that covered about 67 square kilometers, with several obvious hotspots on the perimeter that were still vigorously burning.  Today, we measure a total burned area of 113 km2 — almost double the size just two days ago — although active hotspots were not apparent on this morning’s MODIS image, suggesting the fire may indeed be under control.  High-resolution satellite imagery in Google Earth, taken in 2011, shows the burned area was a mosaic of forest and scrub / open fields.


Detail from MODIS image taken April 28, 2015. 721 infrared composite de-emphasizes smoke and haze, allowing clearer view of burned area and active fire hotspots.


Same as above, with annotation delineating the burned area (67 km2) and active hotspots on April 28.


Same area as above, on a MODIS satellite image taken this morning (April 30). Small cumulus clouds and haze obscure the scene, but a burned area covering 113 km2 is visible. No active hotspots are apparent on this 721 infrared composite.
Same area as above, with April 30 burned extent overlain on high-resolution satellite imagery taken in 2011, showing the burned area is a mosaic of forests and scrub.


30-kilometer “Zone of Alienation” shown by red circle around the Chernobyl complex. This area is highly radioactive and thought to be uninhabitable by humans for at least the next 20,000 years.


Visible smoke plume seen on April 28 MODIS satellite image (natural-color composite).  Zone of Alienation shown as red circle. International borders are yellow. Visible plume extends at least 60 km into Belarus.