Islands of Abandonment
What happens when the humans leave and nature takes over?
Cal Flyn’s latest book (as titled above) is an award-winning writer who lives in the Orkney Islands. Discovering these ‘islands’ required extensive travel as she explored 12 abandoned sites around the world answering the question, what happens after the humans leave?
My favourite stories were the ones which didn’t involve America, they were too depressing. Are we better shielded in Europe from the lies and deceit that seems to accompany bare-faced capitalism, where the only concern is making money at any cost and damn the environment and the people washed up there after the tide has finally disappeared for good?
The collapse of the US car industry in Detroit, Michigan and subsequent demise of that society has been well documented but I’d never heard of Paterson, New Jersey. This is another forgotten industrial centre. It used to be nicknamed ’Silk City’, before all the mills closed, never fully recovering after a strike in 1913.
Little did I know when I started running toward the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge at the beginning of the New York marathon, that on the other side of Staten Island is a tidal strait called Arthur Kill. It’s so toxic from dioxin and other nasty chemical abuses, that there are frequent signs along the shore warning people not to eat the one or two species of fish still catchable, in this toxic wasteland.
In July 1974, thousands of Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus in response to a military coup. The Turkish Cypriot community feared that the Greek-backed military rulers would ignore their rights and press for unification of Cyprus with Greece, called enosis. As a result, thousands died after fierce fighting, a third of the island remains under Turkish rule and 150,000 Greek Cypriots were forced to flee their homes. There is now a 112 mile long demilitarised corridor separating the two warring factions in a permanent ceasefire.
Aside from splitting the capital, Nicosia, in two, famous celebrity haunts like Varosha, a beach suburb of Famagusta frequented by Brigitte Bardot, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor is deserted, now in a forbidden zone controlled by the Turkish army.
To understand the full extent of nature’s changes a group of Turkish and Greek Cypriot scientists returned to no-man’s-land in 2008. Camera traps were set-up in many places including the site of the old Nicosia airport which had seen some of the fiercest fighting. First impressions to the human eye must have been decay and neglect. The buildings had fallen into disrepair as had the runway, made worse by several aircraft lying where they’d crashed. But closer inspection also revealed that barn owls had joined pigeons in the cracked masonry. Snakes basked on the undisturbed runway, foxes hunted in the long grass for mice, while falcons watched over all from their nests in the control tower. Dr Gücel, the co-leader commented that, ‘these animals are very sensitive towards humans’.
In a densely populated island where land is intensely used and hunting popular, a forgotten airport seems a perfect habitat.
In other parts of the buffer zone rare plants like the Cyprus bee orchid and tulip grow profusely. The scientists recorded 358 species of plants, 100 species of bird, 20 reptiles and amphibians and 18 mammals.
No go areas which exclude people, for whatever reason, act like strict nature reserves, protecting wildlife and the environment. A positive result from a crazy political situation that displaced so many families. Still unable to return to their homes, they have no choice but to watch nature enforce its own takeover.
Soviet collapse sinks carbon
This ‘island story’ seems to be a well kept secret. It happened because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Harju is in rural Estonia and like most of the country’s farmland was forced into a collective in 1949. The 80,000 Estonian landowners who objected were all deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan. Smaller traditional farms were overnight aggregated into monolithic monsters - factory farms. Everything was scaled up to industrial sized proportions.
But that all changed in 1991, when the Soviet Union ended. It created one of the biggest shifts in land use ever seen. 63 million hectares, roughly the size of France, is estimated to have been abandoned once state subsidies disappeared and market forces reapplied. In Estonia, the land was returned to the families it had been stolen from. But the previous owners or their families had moved on, now living in cities or emigrants further away, who no longer wanted to farm. The hectares of barley fields and other crops, dependent on human management have gone. A general biological term called ‘succession’ is in full swing over vast swathes of farmland. The abandoned fields are slowly but surely becoming dense spruce forest. Tree cover in Estonia reached 54% of the country by 2010, compared to 21% in 1920.
The end of the Soviet Union has led to the biggest man-made carbon sink in history. One study estimates a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 7.6 gigaton between 1992 an 2011. A cumulative effect of carbon sequestration in the soil combined with a reduction in meat and milk production.
The worlds only ghost town capital
This one is scarier in many respects because there is absolutely nothing that humankind could do to stop it. Cal Flyn entitles it ‘endgame’, which captures the fragility of our survival on this planet.
On the island of Montserrat, a British territory in the Caribbean, the Soufrière Hills Volcano began to erupt on the 18 July 1995. In volcanic terms it was a pedestrian affair, no one needed to run for their lives on that first day. Plymouth, in the southern part of the island and the capital of Montserrat, only received a small dusting of fine white ash. People wandered up the hill to take a closer look at the crack which had appeared, mostly venting steam. Over the days and weeks that followed, more cracks appeared. Thick grey mud started to flow through the forest down to the sea and the ash falls became denser falling as black snow. Eventually, the experts had to call it and the British Navy assisted in evacuating 8,000 refugees who would never return. As you might expect, some chose not to leave, determined to stay in their homes.
On the 25 June 1997, 19 people were killed after a massive eruption. The resultant pyroclastic flows destroyed the island’s airport. Further eruptions in August covered Plymouth in 1.4 metres of ash. The clock below, was originally on the first floor of this building.
The flows were almost silent and deaths instantaneous, burnt by 400˚C material or suffocated by ash. Most of Plymouth was a scene of utter devastation. Glass panes were shattered or distorted like plastic, china ornaments melted like butter on the window sills where they’d sat.
Most of Plymouth’s population never knew that they lived at the foot of a volcano. Inside a few months they’d been displaced by an exclusion zone and finally most of their memories were buried in a sea of ash, no longer recognisable as home.
Apart from the obvious grief and terror caused by such an upheaval was the feeling of astonishment, an extraordinary power bursting forth. As one survivor said,
“It was something man. It was really something to see….the most beautiful thing.”
I understand the sentiment. I couldn’t believe it when I experienced the largest onshore earthquake in the UK when a 5.4 magnitude tremor caused structural damage to buildings in North Wales. There was this sense of an irrefutable, unstoppable force. Apart from a jam factory collapsing (no one was injured), everything returned to normal about a minute later. I felt privileged to have experienced it, assuming that such an event would always be confined to the pages of a text book.