What Does Bikini Atoll Look Like 60 Years After the Nuclear Tests?

The groundwater is contaminated and the coconuts are radioactive, but the coral reefs thrive.

November 29, 2017 5:00 am

Bikini Atoll looks like the Pacific Paradise it was back in 1946, nearly 60 years after the last of the 23 nuclear explosions in its land, air and water. But Stanford biology professor Stephen Palumbi, who visited the remote island for a 10-day research trip for a documentary, Big Pacific, says it does not take very long to pick up on Bikini’s “enduring eeriness,” reports Stanford Magazine

“It’s equivalent to 216 Empire State Buildings being blown into the sky,” Palumbi said, according to Stanford Magazine. “These tests are the most violent thing we’ve ever done to the ocean.”

But what’s shocking, is that six decades later, there is a thriving ecosystem, containing large schools of fish, reef sharks and robust coral, which may have started growing and living only a decade after the area was annihilated.

“We found, much to our surprise, not just scattered corals, but very abundant, big healthy coral communities — corals larger than cars scattered about the edges of a hydrogen bomb crater,” he said, according to Stanford Magazine. “You’re kind of looking at that and thinking, ‘Well, that’s strange.’”

The corals are especially surprising because they look like they have been growing in the same place for 50-some years. Palumbi and doctoral student Elora López hope to shed some light on how this happened using genomes of samples they took from Bikini.

The research could have ramifications not just on understanding how corals manage their genes, but on advancing therapeutic applications to prevent cancers and other mutations in humans, writes Stanford Magazine. 

“The terrible history of Bikini Atoll is an ironic setting for research that might help people live longer,” Palumbi said, according to Stanford Magazine. “By understanding how corals could have recolonized the radiation-filled bomb craters, maybe we can discover something new about keeping DNA intact.”

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