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Tree rings reveal extent of exposure to ionizing radiation in Scots pine Pinus sylvestris

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Tree growth has been hypothesized to provide a reliable indicator of the state of the external environment. Elevated levels of background ionizing radiation may impair growth trajectories of trees by reducing the annual growth. Such effects of radiation may depend on the individual phenotype and interact with other environmental factors such as temperature and drought. We used standardized growth rates of 105 Scots pine Pinus sylvestris located near Chernobyl, Ukraine, varying in the level of background radiation by almost a factor 700. Mean growth rate was severely depressed and more variable in 1987–1989 and several other subsequent years, following the nuclear accident in April 1986 compared to the situation before 1986. The higher frequency of years with poor growth after 1986 was not caused by elevated temperature, drought or their interactions with background radiation. Elevated temperatures suppressed individual growth rates in particular years. Finally, the negative effects of radioactive contaminants were particularly pronounced in smaller trees. These findings suggest that radiation has suppressed growth rates of pines in Chernobyl, and that radiation interacts with other environmental factors and phenotypic traits of plants to influence their growth trajectories in complex ways.

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We are grateful for logistic help during our visits to Ukraine and Belarus from M. Bondarkov and A. Litvinchuk. We also thank L. Dobbs for assistance with radio-dosimetry at USC. We received funding from the University of South Carolina School of the Environment, Bill Murray and the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust, the National Science Foundation, NATO, the Fulbright Program, CRDF and the National Geographic Society to conduct our research. We acknowledge the E-OBS dataset from the EU-FP6 project ENSEMBLES ( and the data providers in the ECA&D project (

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Correspondence to Anders Pape Møller.

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Communicated by A. Braeuning.

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Mousseau, T.A., Welch, S.M., Chizhevsky, I. et al. Tree rings reveal extent of exposure to ionizing radiation in Scots pine Pinus sylvestris . Trees 27, 1443–1453 (2013).

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