Tracing Unnatural Disasters: Sensing wildfires, atmospheres and radiation in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone


On 26 April 1986, the explosion and subsequent open-air graphite fire at Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant contaminated the soil, water and atmosphere alike with radioactive material. The 30-km2 Chernobyl Exclusion Zone remains one of the most contaminated areas in the world today. Over a thousand wildfires have burnt inside the zone since it was established, raising international concern that combustion from a high-intensity wildfire will reanimate radioisotopes currently held in the vegetation and soil. This presentation focuses on the wildfires that blazed in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the spring of 2020, to examine the lingering health effects, political manoeuvring, and insurance implications of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The affective atmospheres of these wildfires require attention in order to understand the impacts of unnatural disasters. To think through the consequences of events that are not bound by two-dimensional cartographies, and that transcend geopolitical borders in space and time, we bring ideas regarding affective atmospheres and volumetric/voluminous sovereignty from cultural geography and cognate disciplines into conversation with insurance studies.

Dr. Christine Eriksen
Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zürich

Dr. Christine Eriksen

Senior Researcher, Center for Security Studies (CSS)

ETH Zürich


Dr. Christine Eriksen is a Senior Researcher in the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (ETH Zurich). Prior to that, she worked for 13 years as an academic at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She gained international recognition in the field of disaster research by bringing human geography, social justice and environmental hazards into dialogue. With a particular interest in social dimensions of disasters, her widely published work examines social vulnerability and risk adaptation in the context of environmental history, cultural norms, and political agendas. She is the author of two books: ‘Alliances in the Anthropocene: Fire, Plants and People’ (2020) and ‘Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty’ (2014). Her work has twice been highly commended by the Resilient Australia Awards (2018 and 2013). She was selected as a ‘World Social Science Risk Interpretation and Action Fellow’ by the International Social Science Council in 2013, named as a ‘2016 Woman of Impact’ for outstanding contributions to research as part of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program, and recognised as a ‘Woman Leader in Fire Science’ by the journal Fire in 2018.