69: Places reclaimed by nature

Imagine if one day humans suddenly vanished off the face of the planet. What would happen? How would plants react to our cities and town? What would the animals do? As luck would have it we don’t need to wait for an apocalypse or mass-abduction to find out. There are a few scattered places around the world where for a variety of reasons humans have upped and left, leaving their homes in the hands of nature. This week we will be looking at some of the place’s nature has reclaimed, and how this has happened, ranging from jungles to deserts to polar islands. Enjoy!

An abandoned ferries wheel in North Carolina being taken over by the invasive and fast growing kudzu plant.

To the jungles

To see what, say a city, would look like if people suddenly disappear, it’s worth going somewhere where this has actually happened. In the 1830s John Lloyd Stephen, an explorer, and artist Frederick Catherwood decided to explore the jungles of Mexico, because they heard rumours that great empires used to exist there. In the middle of the jungle, with huge trees and vines, and no sounds but the calls of the animals, they explored, spending three years in and around the Yucatan. During this time, they discovered 44 ruins of ancient settlements, one so buried in plants that it stood only half a mile from a village whose inhabitants had no idea the ruins were there. When these ruins were cleared of plants, it was discovered that they weren’t just a few little houses but massive palaces, some over 25m high, surrounded by complex cities. These cities largely belonged to the Mayans, a blanket term for a few different indigenous peoples in Central America who had a well develop agricultural civilization in the area many hundreds of years ago. Over time, a mixture of political upheavals, drought and war left many to abandon their great cities in the south and move to the north. Wars with the invading Spanish in the 16th century led to the fall of the last Mayan city, although Mayan people and parts of their culture still exist today.

What had nature done to these great cities since then? Slowly creeping plants like vines had stretched across them, and as they spread and occasionally died and decomposed, creating soil, other plants were able to gain a foothold in these stone buildings. Wind, water and sun cracked and eroded away the rock too, slowly wearing the edges of buildings and causing some bits to tumble onto the ground. Without the fear of humans, animals could move into the buildings and the growing plants surrounding them, until the cities were slowly swallowed by the jungle and lost. These days many of the ruins have been cleared, maintained for tourists and as cultural heritage sites, so look very different than they did when first discovered.

These old Mayan cities weren’t buried by land when they were discovered, but mostly covered in plants, although some had started to develop soil layers on them. Jungles after all are very full of plant life and have the ideal conditions for growth, letting the vines take over quickly. So what happens in areas that aren’t as hospitable?

Kohunlich in Quintana Roo dates back to about 200BC. It is the site of an archaeological dig now, buried by the jungle, but used to be a Mayan City.

Sand and Water

The town of Kolmanskop in Namibia used to be a thriving, built around a diamond mine in the early 1900s. However, as the diamonds ran out, the town started to empty and by 1956 it was completely abandoned. Kolmanskop sat at the edge of the Namib desert, and as no one was there to sweep the floors and streets every morning, the desert soon started to advance. The town is still physically there, with houses still containing old bits of furniture. However, some rooms are now filled over 1meter deep with sand becoming part of the desert. It may not be buzzing with life, but it is definitely being reclaimed by nature.

Quite the opposite happened in Bangkok in Thailand. The massive New World shopping mall there was closed in 1997 after some breaches in building regulations were discovered. A few years later a fire gutted out the abandoned building and destroyed the roof. Rain slowly started to fill the lower floors, creating a huge stagnant pond, heaven for mosquitoes! This became a huge problem for locals who decided to put some tilapia fish into the pond, as they eat mosquitoes. The fish thrived and exploded in number, now filling the huge almost 460m2 pond.

And what about the cold? Of course, places in the Arctic have been abandoned too, like many old military outposts and former mining towns in Russia which at some point were no longer required. This also includes the old Soviet town Pyramiden on the Island of Svalbard in the high Arctic. It was built around a mine and when the mine closed, people headed south for warmer climes. How has nature taken over here? Well.. it hasn’t really? Some birds nest in the old Soviet houses and offices, and Arctic foxes wander through from time to time, but life moves slowly in the cold Arctic and there’s not many animals or plants there to take it over. Decomposition is slow, meaning soil is also very slow to develop. Whilst this mining town has only been abandoned since the 1990s, it is thought that, apart from a bit of rusting, the town is unlikely to change much over the next 500 years. This does have interesting implications for people however. It is a basically perfectly preserved Soviet era town, sometimes with people’s posters still attached to the walls. When the Soviet Union was still in force, few in the West were able to see and document what life was like in the bloc. However, this preserved town gives people a chance to see what a model communist town for that era really looked like in person.

File:Abandonded house in Kolmanskop.png
The town of Kolmanskop in Namibia is slowly being devoured by the desert (Picture: Avillagomez67/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Chernobyl

Perhaps the poster child of abandoned places being reclaimed by nature is Chernobyl, so it definitely needs a mention. In April 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine had an electrical fault which led to the nuclear reactor exploding, spilling out radioactive contamination on the surrounding area. People within a 30km radius of the reactor were permanently evacuated, as staying there would have been deadly. The area, known as the Chernobyl exclusion zone remains in place today, meaning no one can live there, and people can only visit the site in very specific circumstances whilst carefully monitoring the levels of radiation immediately around them.

Over 100,000 people were evacuated from the area, leaving places like the city of Pripyat virtually overnight. The radiation cause pine trees to turn red and drop their needles, and many small mammals dropped dead pretty quickly. Now, 35 years on, what has nature done? For the plants, they undoubtedly are still very contaminated with radiation. However, after the initial death of some, they actually seem to be doing pretty well, so well that some people have said Chernobyl is like a nature reserve with its deciduous and evergreen forests, grasslands and wetlands, rivers and of course the abandoned city itself. Without people picking them, walking over them, cutting them or spraying them with weed killer, the plants at Chernobyl have thrived.

What about the animals? Well, as mentioned a few small mammal populations noticeably decreased in the early aftermath of the disaster. For a long period, researchers weren’t able to go in and study the animal populations there, but with recent increases in technology, equipment like drones and camera traps have given researchers some interesting information. Already 10 years after the disaster it seemed that the animal populations were back to being just as abundant inside the exclusion zone as out. Camera trap footage from the last five years has shown that everything from wolves , badgers and storks to Brown bears and bison have been seen, and thanks to the release of some endangered Przewalksi’s horses nearby in the 1990s, the exclusion zone has become a protected nature reserve for them, helping them boost their numbers. Wolf numbers are in some areas 7 times higher than in nature reserves elsewhere in the world.

Over time the radiation levels have become low enough that, whilst still not good for us, seem to be manageable to the animals. As humans aren’t allowed in, and wouldn’t hunt the animals for food as they are potentially dangerous to eat, this has helped to protect their numbers and allow them to increase. This all doesn’t necessarily mean Chernobyl is a wildlife paradise however. There are reports that many insect populations have crashed, which affects the birds that rely on them for food. Also, in pockets of high radiation many species numbers remain low, and the long term genetic effects on species still remains unknown, partly due to time and partly due to the lack of ability to study these things up close. However, even in a very trying circumstance, nature has managed pretty well in our absence.

Nature is managing to recover from the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the absence of humans.

So what happens when we disappear? Generally, nature just slowly grows over us, making our cities their homes, burying them in plants and soils and generally swallowing them up. With the examples we’ve looked at, animals seem to generally thrive. However, if we really did suddenly disappear not all animals would benefit, especially species we have domesticated. Many species we have fed and protected for many hundreds of years may have lost the knowledge of how to survive on their own. Others we have selectively bred to such an extent that they physically can’t survive without us, like beef cattle which have been bred to produce such big calves they can only give birth by caesarean section. No humans for them would mean big trouble.

As will all life, our relationship with nature is a complex and intricate one, we definitely rely on nature and all it provides us to survive. On the other hand, we have the power to totally destroy nature, but if we disappear it can survive pretty well without us. A humbling thought, though perhaps the best thing is a careful balance where both we and nature can thrive together.

For more info:

An article on the abandoned Soviet town of Pyramiden in the Arctic: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/soviet-ghost-town-arctic-circle-pyramiden-stands-alone-180951429/

A list of some other abandoned places around the world being reclaimed by nature: https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/content/ruins-reclaimed-by-nature/

Music: kongano.com

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