Hell on Earth. How Russians are destroying Ukrainian black soils

There is a well-known story about how during the Second World War, German occupiers were exporting black soil from Ukraine. This is a myth. At least, historians do not have serious scientific evidence of such events.

However, this tale reflects the fact that Ukrainian soils are a true treasure. Despite Ukraine occupying less than half a percent of the total land area of the planet, it possesses about 6-8% of the world’s black soil reserves. Thanks to this soil, Ukraine is one of the leading agricultural countries in the world.

This year, Ukrainian media reported that Russian supermarkets are selling Ukrainian black soil, “thoroughly tested for harmful substances.” Considering the traditions and values of Russians, it’s not very difficult to imagine this.

But even if this is true, Russians cannot deprive Ukraine of a significant amount of black soil in this manner. Instead, there is no doubt that Russian troops are destroying Ukrainian soils right in place and have achieved considerable “success” in this endeavor.

Ukrainska Pravda (news website) tells us how the military actions harm Ukrainian soils, how they can be “treated,” and what awaits the most challenging “patients.”

Bomb craters for fishing

After the end of the Vietnam War, about two and a half million bomb craters from explosions remained in the country’s territory.

To deprive insurgents of hiding places beneath the canopies of tropical trees, the forests were generously sprayed with “orange.” As a result, the trees became bare, and later they withered.

To deprive an agrarian country of resources for life and resistance, bombs were dropped onto its fields. In the craters left behind after the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese villagers created ponds for fish farming.

Stories about how war affects nature are fortunately not as opaque as most other war stories. Because for some parts of nature, war is truly an opportunity.

People throw crops in the fields, which leads to an increase in the mouse population. This, in turn, boosts the food supply for foxes and wolves. This is why the wolf, for example, is rightfully called a “war animal.”

People in Ukraine don’t rejoice in the prohibition of visiting forests during wartime; instead, birds and animals find joy.

The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is a dangerous place without people. However, due to this, it has been unintentionally transformed into a sanctuary where the Amur leopard lives, along with rare species of cranes, bears, and over a hundred other protected animal species.

And on the territory of the American military base Fort Liberty lives a butterfly called the Saint Francis satyr. This is not accidental, as military bases, in general, are much more hospitable places for plants and animals than peaceful cities and heavily pesticide-treated fields.

Such paradoxical examples, where war or the military sphere positively impacts nature, can be listed further. However, among them, there will hardly be stories about soils — war never brings anything good to them. The example of artificial ponds in bomb craters might be one of the few exceptions to this rule. And even then, it’s only because the former soil has turned into the bottom of the pond.

The rich inner world of soils

Radiobiologist and science communicator Olena Pareniuk, when explaining to children how soil is structured and how it functions, draws an analogy with the human body. If the biosphere is the human body, then the soil is like the intestines.

Just as various bacteria inhabit this organ in humans and other animals, countless microorganisms inhabit the soil. If the balance in this “rich inner world” is disrupted by antibiotics or improper nutrition, a person becomes unwell, and sometimes very seriously.

See also: Mine clearance in Ukraine. Long, bureaucratic and expensive process, “black” sappers work faster but without a guarantee

In the soil, countless invertebrates and vastly more bacteria and fungi live. Their task is to break down the remains of dead plants and animals, allowing chemical elements to return to plants and continue the cycle of life.

There are other tasks as well. For instance, nitrogen-fixing bacteria supply plants with nitrogen from the atmospheric air, which plants cannot absorb on their own.

Lyudmyla Bilyavska, a doctor of sciences from the D.K. Zabolotny Institute of Microbiology and Virology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, explains that one gram of “healthy” soil contains billions of diverse microorganisms, which contribute to its fertile properties.

However, truly high-quality soils are difficult to find in agricultural fields. Relentless exploitation reduces billions of microorganisms to millions.

And in places where tanks burned or bombs exploded, millions are reduced to thousands. As a result, the soil’s ability to support plant life diminishes.

Lead. Copper. Mercury

Simultaneously, the soil in the area of an explosion or nearby becomes “enriched” with chemical components that were either absent entirely or significantly less present before.

Kateryna Polyanska, an ecologist from the organization Ecology. Law. Human, collected over a hundred soil samples from various regions of Ukraine where combat actions took place, in order to determine the chemical changes that occurred in the soil.

It turned out that soil from a shell crater in a schoolyard in the Mykolaiv region contains over 600 milligrams of lead per kilogram. This is roughly 20 times higher than the threshold limit value still considered safe for human health.

And not far from the crater, a kilogram of soil contains only 25 milligrams of lead. This is lower than the threshold limit value, and it proves that there were no lead problems in the soil on the schoolyard before the shell exploded. It’s also important to verify this, as combat actions often take place in industrial regions where the environment wasn’t in exemplary condition even before the war.

In another sample taken by Kateryna at the site of a missile crater in a forest, also in the Mykolaiv region, the laboratory found copper concentrations exceeding the norm by over a hundred times.

Such high concentrations of harmful metals in the area of combat actions are not always encountered. However, for mercury, vanadium, and cadmium, exceeding background levels by 3-6 times is a common occurrence.

Dead soil

Heavy metals are far from the only chemical trace of wartime activities in the soil. As a result of explosions, spills, and fires, a whole bouquet of diverse chemical compounds enters the environment. These range from relatively safe ones, such as carbon dioxide, to clearly harmful ones, such as TNT, toxic to humans and soil organisms.

All of this “chemical weapons,” when present in high concentrations along with the high temperature and pressure generated by an explosion, can literally kill the soil.

Lyudmyla Bilyavska conducted experiments with various soil samples from combat zones to assess the suitability of such soil for plant growth. It turned out that seeds of wheat do not germinate at all in the soil taken from under a burned tank.

It can be even worse if some plants manage to grow on the war-ravaged land.

What to do with craters

The fate of chemical pollutants that end up in the soil due to wartime actions varies. It depends on the specific substance, the type of soil, what is growing there, and other factors.

Certain substances might find their way into groundwater, which people consume as drinking water. Others might end up in agricultural crops and consequently enter the human body.

Returning to the previously mentioned heavy metals, leafy vegetables, for instance, can accumulate them particularly actively.

That’s why Kateryna Polyanska emphasizes that covering a crater on a field or in a garden with soil and continuing to cultivate agricultural crops there is definitely not the best solution. Ideally, the affected soil should be replaced with “healthy” soil.

However, Ukraine lacks specialized disposal sites where such soil could be safely buried. And there isn’t enough “unnecessary” clean soil to fill all the craters from explosions.

Considering this, the idea proposed by conservationist Oleksii Vasyliuk, who suggests temporarily using Russian fields after Ukraine’s victory, doesn’t seem as extravagant. Though it doesn’t appear very realistic either.

Seeded with iron

Today, many Ukrainian agricultural lands are under occupation, some are mined, and others have been ravaged due to combat actions. While the active phase of the war continues, it’s possible to estimate the real state of these soils and the overall extent of the damage only approximately. But here’s just one example.

In a satellite image of fields in the Izium district in the Kharkiv region, conservationists counted over two thousand craters from explosions within a one square kilometer area. To visualize this distribution, if these craters were evenly spread out, each square with a side length of 22 meters would contain one crater.

Field in the Kharkiv region after Russian shelling


Together, these shells displaced no less than 90,000 tons of soil and introduced tons of iron, copper, sulfur, and other substances into it, which have no place where wheat is growing.

Remedies for the soil

There are technologies that allow for the “healing” or at least improvement of lands wounded by war or some technological catastrophe.

The dangerous ability of certain plants to accumulate heavy metals or other chemical components also has a flip side. Such plants, like hemp for example, can “extract” hazardous components from the soil and gradually make it cleaner and safer.

Gut microbiota that has been affected by antibiotics can be restored with the help of special preparations containing beneficial bacteria.

Even before the full-scale war began, microbial preparations that allow for the “treatment” of soil were developed at the Institute of Microbiology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. These preparations cleanse the soil from petroleum products, pesticides, or other harmful compounds, while also enriching it with beneficial microorganisms.

Lyudmyla Bilyavska mentions that such preparations can be used for soils affected by wartime actions as well. Currently, she and her colleagues are conducting research in this direction.

In the fields of the Battle of Verdun

After World War I, the infamous site of the Battle of Verdun in France became the so-called Zone Rouge.

Due to prolonged and intense fighting, human settlements and infrastructure were destroyed. The land was scarred with craters, littered with fragments of ammunition and unexploded shells, contaminated with chlorine, arsenic, mercury, and lead. Over a thousand square kilometers of the country became completely unsuitable for both living and agriculture. Therefore, the French government decided to transform this area into an alienation zone.

Over the next century, its area decreased by more than ten times and now covers approximately one hundred square kilometers. Demining experts are doing their work, but farmers still risk harvesting an “iron harvest” there during fieldwork.

Nature is gradually doing its work as well. New types of habitats, or ecosystems to put it simply, have formed in century-old craters filled with water.

However, for instance, in the area where all explosive ammunition was neutralized, you can still observe a tundra landscape amidst the forest. Due to contamination and disruption of the soil, nothing grows there except for some lichens.

The reality is that similar “red zones” can also form in Ukraine — in places where war severely damages the land.

Lesson from the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone

Understanding and explaining this reality is facilitated by the experience of the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone.

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest man-made disasters in human history was never conceived as a benefit or an “opportunity.” However, over three decades after it occurred, the exclusion zone has effectively and legally transformed into a vast natural reserve.

Yes, the local nature here suffered even before the construction of the nuclear power plant, partly due to the draining of swamps.

And perhaps the bears that started to venture into these areas in recent years won’t return here due to the war, at least not in our lifetime. Instead, there are now Przewalski’s horses, which were never present before, but they have integrated well into the local ecosystem.

For those interested in numbers, it’s worth noting that the Chornobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve protects over 70 species of animals and nearly half a hundred plant species from the Red Data Book of Ukraine.

Carbon capture factories

Someone might argue that it’s too cynical to transform cities, fields, and villages into biodiversity hubs. But the point is that nature conservation is becoming increasingly pragmatic. In other words, nature conservation isn’t just a gesture of goodwill, but a condition for human survival. We can continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that humans have no connection to the temperature records that the planet is demonstrating this year.

However, one of the reasons for global climate change is the destruction of natural ecosystems: forests, swamps, and steppes. Therefore, we need to not only protect those that remain but also restore them where possible. They are incredibly effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere, something our technologies still struggle to achieve.

“Red zones” in the south and east of Ukraine could become such carbon capture factories.

Of course, one could try to do without them. However, to achieve this, they need not only to be made safe for humans, a challenge France hasn’t resolved in a hundred years, but we would also have to explain to the civilized world and Europe in particular where we are heading, why Ukraine remains one of the most devastated countries globally, and far from leading in environmental protection.

Botanists, zoologists, and their colleagues from related fields have no doubt that conserving biodiversity is critically important. It’s a challenging topic to “sell” to people who aren’t interested in nature and environmental protection. Yet, just like ecologists or botanists, they also depend on the state of biodiversity.

Sure, when it comes to protecting herring or other commercial fish, it’s easy to understand. But why protect organisms you’ve never seen before, and for which there’s no name in your native language — it’s not easy to grasp.

Fortunately, when it comes to soils, we have almost ideal promotion for the importance of biodiversity.

In the 1970s, Japanese researcher Satoshi Omura studied the properties of various soil microorganisms. To compete for their “place under the sun,” these organisms evolved to produce different substances to suppress and kill competitors. Since among these competitors are human foes, such substances can be very beneficial for humans.

In a soil sample collected near a golf course, Satoshi Omura discovered a bacterium that synthesizes one of these substances, which was previously unknown. He named it avermectin.

Derivatives of this substance were initially used to treat helminths in domestic animals and later in humans. Today, they are used to treat various helminth infections, which fortunately are almost unknown to Ukrainians as inhabitants of the temperate zone.

However, on a global scale, the significance of these drugs is such that in 2015, Satoshi Omura and American scientist William Campbell were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Originally posted by Dmytro Simonov on Ukrainska Pravda. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: How does the war in Ukraine affect the environment and deepen the food crisis?

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