Health News Digest

May 29, 2006

Some Positive Environmental News—From Unexpected Placeshappy news

By  Michael D. Shaw

We all know that “If it bleeds, it leads” is the byword of big time journalism, and that’s why we seem to get an endless barrage of bad news. Certainly, most of what we hear about the environment seems to be one catastrophe after another. Sometimes, though, good news will spring up from the most unlikely places. And, perhaps, strangest of all, sometimes positive unintended consequences—kind of a riff on Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—will rise up like the proverbial phoenix.

Many of us recall the big controversy surrounding the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System that opened in 1977. Designed to move oil from the North Slope to the port at Valdez, Alaska, this monumental project stretches 800 miles, and to date has transported more than 15 billion barrels of oil, with an admirable safety and environmental record.

At the time, the pipeline was fiercely opposed as sop for Big Oil; protesters were vigorous in their belief that this initiative, which has subsequently lessened our dependence on foreign energy and created jobs here in the United States, would disrupt the mating habits of caribou, to cite just one notable example. Once critic proclaimed that the pipeline “…would cross one of the most active earthquake zones in the world, would scar and despoil vast tracts of magnificent, undisturbed country and would threaten extensive oil spills in the numerous rivers which the pipeline would cross.”

The New York Times said the question was, vis-à-vis indigenous wildlife, “…whether the caribou will go the way of the buffalo.” Furthermore, many of these same critics also doubted the pipeline’s ability to reliably supply large amounts of oil. It seems they were wrong on both counts.

In fact, the current caribou population is higher than one could have even imagined. Walter Hickel, a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and governor of Alaska, noted recently that the caribou herd…

“…has not only survived, but flourished. In 1977, as the Prudhoe region started delivering oil to America’s southern 48 states, the Central Arctic caribou herd numbered 6,000; it has since grown to 27,128.”

It turns out that the pipeline, heated as it must be to keep the oil moving, became a sort of babe magnet for the caribou, who, not surprisingly, were drawn to the warmth!

But hold onto your hats for this next one—good news from one of the most contaminated areas in the world: Chernobyl. Radioecologist Sergey Gaschak has some interesting findings from the exclusion zone around the infamous nuclear power station that went bad in 1986.

The humans moved out, but it seems that the animals moved right back in. True, many of the critters are still too radioactive for human consumption, but they seem to be doing just fine. There are plenty of DNA mutations, and one can even posit freak creatures. But, the rare real freaks die quickly, and the vast majority of mutants have no defect that affects their physiology or reproductive ability.

Mary Mycio, author of Wormwood Forest, a natural history of the Chernobyl area reminds us that scientists study populations as a whole, and are not that interested in what happens to particular individuals. She also points out that the benefits to wildlife of removing people from the zone have far outweighed any harm from radiation.

The number of species that are thriving in this former hellhole is quite encouraging, and includes badger, beaver, boar, deer, elk, fox, hare, otter, raccoon dog, wolf, aquatic warbler, azure tit, black grouse, black stork, crane, and white-tailed eagle. Scientists believe there might even be bears, unknown in this region for hundreds of years.

Most gratifying of all is that Gaschak found only one animal, a mouse, with cancer-like symptoms.

It is difficult to imagine better enviro news than Chernobyl coming back from the dead. Alexander Pope was right: Hope springs eternal.