What does Chernobyl sound like?


Inspired by Maggie's post on the Miles O'Brien PBS NewsHour report from Chernobyl, 25 years after the nuclear disaster there, a follower on Twitter just pointed me to this amazing series of works by sound artist Peter CusackAmbient sounds at Chernobyl, Ukraine, recorded in 2006.

Listen to the frogs and nightingales of Chernobyl here. Beautiful.

From the project notes:

Since the nuclear catastrophe of April 26 1986, and in complete contrast to human life, nature at Chernobyl is thriving. The evacuation of people has created an undisturbed haven and wildlife has taken full advantage. Animals and birds absent for many decades - wolves, moose, black storks - have moved back and the Chernobyl exclusion zone is now one of Europe's prime wildlife sites. Radiation seems to have had a negligible effect. The increase in wildlife numbers and variety means that the natural sounds of springtime are particularly impressive. For me the passionate species rich dawn chorus became Chernobyl's definitive sound. Chernobyl is also famous for its frogs and nightingales. Nighttime concerts were equally spectacular.

Of course, judging from the NewsHour report, today Chernobyl sounds like phones ringing. News crews from around the world are all trying to book time at the site to produce reports on the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in history.

Related: Cusack's "Sounds From Dangerous Places" project collected sounds from places including Chernobyl, the Azerbaijan oil fields, and areas near controversial dams on the Tigris and Euphrates river systems in Turkey, all of which are sites of major environmental damage.

(Image: Peter Cusack, via gruenrekorder.de. Thanks, Sara Huws!)



  1. Jacob Kirkegaard did something similar a few years ago at Chernobyl called 4 rooms. http://fonik.dk/works/4rooms.html
    From the website: The sound of each room was evoked by an elaborate method: Kirkegaard made a recording of 10 minutes and then played the recording back into the room, recording it again. This process was repeated up to ten times. As the layers got denser, each room slowly began to unfold a drone with various overtones.

  2. The danish artist Jakob Kirkegaard also recorded ambient sounds from Chernobyl in 2006. “The work aims to be a revelation of four abandoned spaces inside the Zone of Exclusion in Chernobyl. It deals with a sonic experience of time, absence, and change – in an area haunted by an invisible and inaudible danger, amidst the slowly decaying remains of human civilization. This work is a sonic presentation of four deserted rooms inside the ‘Zone of Alienation’ in Chernobyl.” Listen to samples here: http://www.wirikuta.at/web66/product_detail.jsp;jsessionid=IKKBHFOIEMBI?showDetail=133990

  3. Nature is thriving at Chernobyl because the frogs don’t build a hospital and special schools for all their cancerous tadpoles, they just eat them.

    If you are OK with darwinism red in tooth and nail, people could thrive there too.

    But I’m not moving there, and Internet Nuclear Aplogists don’t have the stones to move there either, although they will claim to. No normal human looks forward to holding an unnecessarily suffering child.

  4. Definitely a place I’d like to visit in my lifetime. Let’s hope something like this never happens again.

  5. Definitely a place I like to not visit during my lifetime. Too bad something like that is happening again.

    I can’t tell by your font.

  6. It’s amazing that this is not too different from how a lot of North America and Europe used to sound. We have replaced the sounds of nature with those of our own, just as we blot out the stars in the sky with our lights on the ground.

    Give the ocean 25 years without us and it would be teeming with life again. We don’t see, or don’t notice, the barren wasteland we have made of it.

    These sounds aren’t just about nuclear accidents, they are about seeing a slice of what we lose when we think we gain, and what we gain when we think we lose.

  7. Alan Weisman has a great segment about Chernobyl’s wilderness, as well as the wildlife in the Korean DMZ in his fantastic book, A World Without Us. I highly recommend reading the book – it is not a doomsday prophecy as the title might convey.

  8. In the wild, many animals don’t live long enough that they’re likely to catch cancer. So you really can’t compare the effects of radioactivity on an animal who lives 6 years on average and a person who should live 60 something years.

  9. You know, in our modern world, we have come to associate places like deserts and tundra as wonderlands of biodiversity. This is of course simply because these are the few expansive untouched natural areas left because they are so inhospitable to us.

    I guess we can add nuclear meltdown site to the list now, too.

  10. Many years ago I read about a fenced off wooded plot with a radioactive source at the center. A shield could be raised and lowered remotely so that one could enter and access the impact on the environment. Near the center only some hardy lichen survived. Does that ring a bell with anyone? It was in the United States.

    1. Ah, the plutonium forest. I believe the guy who created it (destroyed it?) is the same well-intentioned bunghole who stuck us with the friendly-sounding moniker “global warming” instead of “catastrophic climate change”.

      It’s somewhere up in New England, isn’t it?

      1. 1. No plutonium was involved in the forest irradiation study. The gamma radiation was produced by a sealed cesium-137 source (which only causes completely reversible irradiation, not contamination with radioactive material).
        2. The scientists involved in the research, such as George M. Woodwell, have nothing to do with the terms used for climate change.
        3. It’s in Long Island.

  11. Well, Ann Coulter _did_ say that radiation is good for us.

    So I’ll just leave this here:

    Well I’m not uptight
    Not unattracted
    Turn me on tonight
    Cause I’m radioactive

    There’s not a fight
    And I’m not your captive
    Turn me loose tonight
    Cause I’m radioactive

  12. Glad to hear that Boingboing finally picked up on Peter’s project. He manages to get in before anyone else, more or less. The geiger counter track is especially telling.

  13. My comment vanished, so apologies for any duplication. In the interest of openness, I write as someone absolutely opposed to nuclear power, just in case this causes a huge row!

    There are some studies that argue that the increase in biodiversity referred to in the area around Chernobyl isn’t actually happening, or is decreasing. Though as with all scientific debates the discussion is ongoing. There is quite a useful BBC report of the debates that come from the latest research here


    The problem in my mind is this question of increased biodiversity is always in Chernobyl’s case linked to the question of radiation. But if you took any built up area and removed humans for 25 years, you would see a major return of wildlife. Alan Weisman’s book “The World Without Us” has some useful discussions of this.

    The question in Chernobyl’s case is whether the existence of radiation in the area has no effect or a negative effect on the wildlife returning to the area. My conclusions, based on the BBC report of this study and a cursory look into the evidence is that the biodiversity is hampered by the higher than average radiation levels. Lots of animals return, many of them suffer and don’t breed.

    As such we should be wary of those whose arguments could be caricatured as saying that “radiation isn’t as bad as those anti-nuclear types say, look at how nature thrives near Chernobyl”.

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