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Tuesday, 15 April 2008 18:33

Bikini bounces back from Big Bomb

The largest nuclear weapon ever detonated by the United States was centered at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands (South Pacific Ocean) on March 1, 1954. Fifty-four years later scientists find an abundance of underwater life—but, above ground, only uninhabitable land.  

Also known as Pikinni Atoll, the uninhabited 2.3-square-mile (six-square kilometr) atoll is one of thirty-six islands of Micronesia (a sub-region of Oceania). It is owned by the Rupublic of the Marshall Islands (RMI, commonly called, the Marshall Islands).

Between 1946 and 1958 a series of nuclear weapons tests were performed as part of the area called the Pacific Proving Grounds, a part of the U.S. nuclear testing program.

On March 1, 1954, the first U.S. test of a dry fuel thermonuclear (fusion) device was detonated. The code name for the U.S. operation was Castle Bravo, part of the larger program called Operation Castle.

The bomb was approximately one thousands times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, only one of two intentional nuclear weapon attacks ever conducted by one country (United States) on another country (Japan).

Marine scientists recently returned to Bikini Atoll. Zoe Richards, from Cook University (Australia) and the Australian Research Council's Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, was one of the members of the international team of researchers.

Team members came from Australia, the Marshall Islands, Italy, Germany, and the United States. The goal of the expedition was to study the diversity and abundance of marine life in the atoll.

They found coral and fish flourishing in the water. In total, the team found 183 species of scleractinian (hard, or stony) coral.

Some of the coral was found to be 27 feet (eight meters) in height, with up to a 12-inch (30-centimeter) diameter trunk. The scientists found that about seventy percent of the coral species had re-established themselves around Bikini Atoll.

Richards exclaimed at the discovery, “We saw communities not too far from any coral reef, with plenty of fish, corals and action going on, some really striking individual colonies.” [Reuters UK: “Coral flourishing at Bikini Atoll atomic test site”]

She added, "It was fascinating. I've never seen corals growing like trees outside of the Marshall Islands.”

Bravo Crater was created as a result of the explosion of the nuclear device which eventually rose 62 miles (100 kilometers) into the sky, with a width of about four miles (six kilometers). The crater is approximately one mile (1.6 kilometers) in diameter and about 240 feet (75 meters) deep.

At the same time, the researchers found that some coral species appear to be locally extinct, most likely due to the blast itself or the resulting radioactivity, increased nutrient levels in the waters, or increased sediments created.

Richards stated, “The missing corals are fragile lagoonal specialists – slender branching or leafy forms that you only find in the sheltered waters of a lagoon.” [UQ News Online (University of Queensland): “Bikini corals recover from atomic blast”]
The marine researchers found that areas above the ocean were uninhabitable for humans, remaining contaminated with radioactivity.

How did life under the water come back? Please read on.

Under the ocean, life thrives, probably due to plants traveling into the area from atmospheric wind currents and fish from underwater currents.

The researchers commented, “… [t]he modern Bikini Atoll community may have been replenished by self-seeding from brooded larvae from surviving adults (e.g. in genera Pocillopora, Stylophora, Seriatopora and Isopora), survival of fragments of branching corals, and/or migration of new propagules from neighbouring atolls. The patchy nature of impacts may have mitigated the overall effect of disturbance at Bikini Atoll, with some patches surviving after each impact….Corals living on deep exposed reefs on Bikini Atoll may also have escaped some of the direct impacts, and thus have played an integral role in mitigating the overall effect of the disturbance event.” [Practical Fishkeeping: “Nuked coral reef recovers”]
Richards stated, "It is absolutely pristine for another tragic reason. It received fallout and was evacuated of people, so now underwater it's really healthy and prevailing winds have probably been seeding Bikini Atoll's recovery.”

Although the area at Bikini Atoll has been decontaminated, it is still unsafe to live by the former Bikini residents, who were evacuated to another island before the bombings in the 1940s and 1950s.

The paper (“Bikini Atoll coral biodiversity resilience five decades after nuclear testing”) written by the investigating team of Zoe T. Richards, Maria Beger, Silvia Pinca, and Carden C. Wallace appears in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin (Elsevier) No. 56, March 2008, page 5-3-1-515.

The abstract to their paper states, “Five decades after a series of nuclear tests began, we provide evidence that 70% of the Bikini Atoll zooxanthellate coral assemblage is resilient to large-scale anthropogenic disturbance. Species composition in 2002 was assessed and compared to that seen prior to nuclear testing. A total of 183 scleractinian coral species was recorded, compared to 126 species recorded in the previous study (excluding synonomies, 148 including synonomies)."

"We found that 42 coral species may be locally extinct at Bikini. Fourteen of these losses may be pseudo-losses due to inconsistent taxonomy between the two studies or insufficient sampling in the second study, however 28 species appear to represent genuine losses. Of these losses, 16 species are obligate lagoonal specialists and 12 have wider habitat compatibility. Twelve species are recorded from Bikini for the first time."

"We suggest the highly diverse Rongelap Atoll to the east of Bikini may have contributed larval propagules to facilitate the partial resilience of coral biodiversity in the absence of additional anthropogenic threats.”

Additional information is found at “Coral Reef Futures07”—a website of the ARC Center of Excellence.

[Autnor's note, first paragraph updated from "live" to "life" per reader's comment. Thanks!]

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