How Russia's war in Ukraine harms wildlife : Short Wave The war in Ukraine is devastating that nation's rich, natural environment - from chemical leaks poisoning water supplies and warships killing dolphins to explosions disrupting bird migrations. NPR Environmental Correspondent Nate Rott has been reporting from Ukraine. He sits down with Short Wave's Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber to talk about how the Russian invasion is harming the environment even beyond Ukraine's borders.

Read more of Nate's reporting: https://n.pr/3PkuKcE

Want to get in touch? Reach the show by emailing ShortWave@NPR.org.

Russia's War In Ukraine Is Hurting Nature

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

REGINA BARBER, HOST:

Hello, Nate Rott. Welcome back to SHORT WAVE.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hello, Regina. It is very nice to finally audio meet you.

BARBER: It's nice to meet you, too. I heard you just came back from Ukraine.

ROTT: I did, yeah. So I'm a part of a crew of NPR reporters and producers who have been cycling in and out of Ukraine since Russia invaded back in late February and really in the weeks leading up to the war.

BARBER: But in your day job, you're an environment reporter on NPR's climate team, right?

ROTT: I am, correct. And the reason I wanted to talk to you today is because I actually got a chance to do some environment and climate reporting in Ukraine during my last stint.

BARBER: So what does that involve?

ROTT: It involves a lot of travel. We made it to basically every side of the country.

BARBER: Wow.

ROTT: But the place I want to take you is in northern Ukraine. So come with me real quick to an ecological inspection laboratory in the northern Ukrainian town of Zhytomyr.

YEVGENIY MEDVEDOVSKIY: (Through interpreter) That's the laboratory.

ROTT: You know, the beakers gave it away - the little glass bottle.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

MEDVEDOVSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: So that person you were hearing, that was Yevgeniy Medvedovskiy. He's with the country's office of ecological inspection. And the reason that we were there with him is we had seen and heard about a lot of environmental destruction across the country while we were reporting there. We had felt missile strikes, and we were curious about what all of that was doing to Ukraine, one of the most biodiversity-rich countries in Europe.

BARBER: And I imagine what you found wasn't good.

ROTT: No, it was not. Here's the head of the lab we were in. Her name is Iryna Bereziuk, describing what they've been finding as they take soil samples around missile strikes 200, 300 yards away from the place of impact.

IRYNA BEREZIUK: (Through interpreter) Still, all the levels of the chemicals were more than normal.

ROTT: The further you went out it was still (inaudible)...

BEREZIUK: (Through interpreter). Yeah. Because of the blast wave, there's some fumes, and they settle on the surface, so they contaminate the surface anyway.

BARBER: Oof. So today on SHORT WAVE, the ecological effects of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

ROTT: And the long-term damage that's being done.

BARBER: I'm Regina Barber, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARBER: So, Nate, you saw a lot of ecological damage while reporting in Ukraine. What does that look like?

ROTT: It looks like shredded trees and miles and miles and miles of trench dug into the earth. It looks like flooded plains from destroyed dams and overgrown trails because national park staff are now enlisted to fight in the war. And it looks a lot like the place we visited after seeing that laboratory.

BARBER: So now we're going to take a moment to listen to Nate's piece.

ROTT: Brown leaves and short shoots of green grass blanket at the forest floor in these woods west of the northern Ukrainian town of Zhytomyr. Our guide, Viktor Radushinskiy, excitably IDs the tall trees on either side.

VIKTOR RADUSHINSKIY: (Through interpreter) That's beech.

ROTT: Ah, OK. Beech...

RADUSHINSKIY: (Through interpreter) The same in California.

ROTT: Yeah. I live in California.

RADUSHINSKIY: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: Radushinskiy is part of a team of ecological and environmental inspectors who are here to show us a small example of the environmental damage caused by Russia's invasion. Roughly a quarter mile into the woods, we hit a wide trench dug into the forest floor.

RADUSHINSKIY: (Through interpreter) That - these are - it was dug out to prevent fire spreading.

ROTT: Oh, so this is a fire line we're walking on.

On the other side of the trench, the forest floor is scorched black, and there's a tangle of downed, burnt trees. A gash, maybe 20 yards across, has been cleaved through the canopy above, and debris dots the ground all around.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: These are the pieces of the plane.

ROTT: Earlier in the war, a Ukrainian fighter jet, in a dogfight with two Russian planes, crashed into these woods. A jagged piece of metal is lodged into a burnt tree some 20 feet overhead.

So the plane crashed here and started a wildfire?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

RADUSHINSKIY: (Through interpreter) It explode.

ROTT: Wow.

The 27-year-old pilot did not survive. Yevgeniy Medvedovskiy, the chief of the region's department of ecological inspection, says Ukraine's military took the bulk of the wreckage away from this area more than two months ago. But you can still smell the jet fuel that seeped into the ground - a concern for the water supplies of two nearby villages.

MEDVEDOVSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "This pollution," Medvedovskiy says, "will be with this place for a long time." Medvedovskiy and other ecological inspectors around the country have been coming to sites like this wherever they can, collecting soil samples, water and air. They're visiting fuel depots destroyed by Russian missile strikes, industrial sites and factories, battlefields and blast sites. Many places are still inaccessible or still occupied by Russia. All of the information is then sent on to Kyiv to the country's lead office of environmental inspection and its head, Oleksiy Obrizan.

OLEKSIY OBRIZAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "We've documented more than 300 cases of ecological damage since Russia's invasion began," Obrizan says, "but the total cases could be upwards of 1,500." The evidence, Obrizan says, is being collected to charge Russia with potential environmental war crimes, even though there's not much precedent in international courts for that. I ask why the world should care about environmental damage, given the horrific crimes against people suffered in Bucha, Mariupol and the country's east.

OBRIZAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "The world now knows about Ukraine," Obrizan says, "and the problems it's facing. But these environmental problems aren't just Ukraine's," he stresses. "They cross borders. They are the world's." To get a better sense of that larger impact, we went to Tuzly Lagoons National Park along the Black Sea in the grass-covered step of Ukraine's southern coast.

This is pretty.

IVAN RUSEV: It's a big area. It's about 27,000 hectares.

ROTT: Ivan Rusev helped create this national park. And even though this area doesn't have crashing jets, parts of this park were bombed, and much of its beaches are now covered in mines. And, Rusev says, the impact of the war here is devastating. Start with the normally huge population of migratory birds.

RUSEV: They disappear because it was very big noise from the bombing.

ROTT: Dolphins, he says, affected by the low-frequency sonar used by Russian warships, have been washing up onshore.

RUSEV: We estimate that all dolphin which has died from this war, about 2,000 dolphin dying. This during three months.

ROTT: Then there's the fires.

RUSEV: Fire is big problem. For example, about 15 kilometer, it was a big fire two weeks ago.

ROTT: Fire started by a flare that was difficult to contain because of mines. Zoom out, and there are concerns Russia's invasion of Ukraine could make regular wildfires difficult to contain in other parts of the world as well. Last year, Turkey, northern Russia, Greece and other parts of Europe experienced devastating wildfire seasons.

SCOTT DEHNISCH: We're looking at the exact same pattern we had last year - so very, very hot and very, very dry.

ROTT: Scott Dehnisch is the wildfire and emergency systems coordinator for USAID.

DEHNISCH: Many of the firefighting aircraft for Western Europe and the Middle East come from Russia. And because of sanctions and because of those aircraft's unavailability because of war, those are off the table now.

ROTT: Wildfires in Siberia, which have an outsized impact on the world's climate, Dehnisch says, are going unsuppressed.

DEHNISCH: This war is outside of even just Ukraine. It really has multiple, exponential layers of damage that it's doing.

ROTT: To the world's climate and its declining biodiversity.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SLAMMING)

ROTT: Back at Tuzla Lagoons National Park on the Black Sea, Iryna Vykhrystyuk, the park's director, steps out of the car into tall grass next to the still waters of a neighboring lagoon.

IRYNA VYKHRYSTYUK: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "Normally," she says, "we'd be seeing huge flocks of migratory birds resting on this water's surface as they make their journeys north and west. This year," she says, "they've mostly been scared away." A short trip away, past a string of anti-tank mines hidden in the grass, we reach the Black Sea...

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

ROTT: ...And a long, empty stretch of shell-speckled sand.

VYKHRYSTYUK: (Non-English language spoken).

ROTT: "This place has the most amazing sunrises and sunsets," Vykhrystyuk says. "It's normally like heaven. Looking out towards the Black Sea, she says, when Ukraine wins this war, not if, she hopes people will visit this park again, whatever state it's in. And hopefully, she says, it will help them heal.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

BARBER: Wow. Nate, that is devastating. What can be done to help alleviate some of the damage you just described?

ROTT: Time - I mean, it's going to take a really long time. And it will likely take a lot of foreign investment. Ukraine, as you heard, is hoping that Russia will fork the bill for some of the damage it's done. But first, the war has got to end. There's no signs of that happening. And even then, it's going to be hard to get Russia to pay for some of these ecological damages because there's just not really a whole lot of precedent around the world.

BARBER: And the wildfire situation you just described, with Europe and the Middle East relying on Russia for firefighting aircraft, do we know if that's having an effect now?

ROTT: It is, yes. So there are currently massive wildfires burning in Spain and Portugal and different parts of Europe.

BARBER: Yeah, we were just in Spain, and we saw the aftermath of a fire and we saw one of the helicopters - the firefighting aircraft - go by us.

ROTT: Whoa. No kidding? I mean, it's been a really crazy fire season. Last year, they had a bad fire season. This year, they're having a bad fire season. So it's a huge thing. And right now, there's even bigger fires that are burning in northern Russia, an area where wildfires are really not a good thing for the planet because of the outsized impact they have on global climate change. So the broader environmental implications of this war are just huge.

BARBER: Nate Rott, thank you so much for your work on this.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on.

BARBER: We'll be back later this summer with more on the war in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARBER: This episode was produced by Rachel Carlson and Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Stephanie O'Neill and fact-checked by Rachel Carlson. The audio engineer was Maggie Luthar. Special thanks to translators Olena Lysenko and Hanna Palamarenko. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Beth Donovan is our senior director. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Regina Barber. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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