Lake Baikal: The Pearl of Siberia
Lake Baikal is nothing short than a natural wonder. It is the deepest, oldest and largest freshwater lake by volume, containing one fifth of the world’s fresh water.
The 25-million old lake has a maximum depth of 1,642 meters and is a living museum, boasting approximately 1,700 animal and plant species, out of which two thirds are endemic. It is one of the clearest lakes in the world, the biggest lake in Asia and 7th biggest lake in the world by surface area. Its 23,615 cubic kilometers of fresh water surpasses the volume of all American Great Lakes combined.
Lake Baikal Stats
|Lake Name||Lake Baikal|
|Lake type||Rift lake|
|Inflows||Selenge, Barguzin, Upper Angara|
|Frozen||January to May|
Geography and Hydrography
It should come as no surprise then that it’s considered one of the most important natural treasures of the world, with places like the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes, the Amazon, the Nile, etc. Lake Baikal is a continental rift lake, similar in this regard to Lake Tanganyika, both lakes featuring long crescent shapes. Its body, measuring an area of 31,722 square kilometers, sits between Irkutsk Oblast to the NE and the Buryat Republic to the SE, in Siberia. The lake was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and is home to Buryat tribes on its East side.
Its surface area makes is roughly equal in size to Belgium, and its length is approximately the same as the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The smallest width is 25 kilometers at the Selenge River delta, and the greatest width is 79.5 kilometers in the middle of the lake, between Olkhon Island and Nos Peninsula. The lake’s catchment area is 560,000 square kilometers, about the size of France, among which Selenge, it’s biggest inflow among approximately 336, contributes with 447,000 square kilometers. Among these rivers, the most important ones include: Selenga River (1,024 km), Barguzin River (480 km), Upper Angara River (320 km), Sarma River, Turka River and Snezhnaya River.
Its only outflow is Angara River (1,779 km). The lake drains into the Yenisei River through Angara, and ultimately into the Kara Sea at the Arctic Ocean.
Frozen from January to May
The lake is frozen from January until May, and there’s an interesting aspect here too: due to the enormous heat reserve accumulated by the lake and its slow release into the atmosphere, the biggest amount of evaporation happens between October and December, not in July and August, as it’s the case in other boreal lakes from the temperate climate. In June, there’s practically no evaporation effect. This delay is caused by the big temperature difference between the warmer water and cooler air in autumn and early winter. Consequently, the lake freezes at the start of January, even though temperatures drop below freezing starting with November or sometimes earlier. However, the lake is covered in ice even in May, which is a lot considering the lake’s altitude.
One of the Clearest Lakes in the World
The lake’s incredible transparency is an important factor that contributes to the wildlife’s amazing diversity. The lake is one of the clearest in the world, with water transparency reaching 40 meters (131 ft). The presence of light to this depth enhances photosynthesis and plant life.
Even though the lake is very deep, its waters are well-oxygenated and well-mixed, especially if compared to Lake Tanganyika’s stratification. This is due to the lake’s low water temperature, which from 200-250 meters to the bottom stays the same throughout the year, at about 3.5 degrees Celsius.
World’s Deepest Continental Rift
The bottom of Lake Baikal is 1,186 meters below sea level, and an additional 7 kilometers of sediment can be found below the lake bed. This places the rift floor 8 - 11 kilometers below the surface, making it Earth’s deepest continental rift, a rift which is still young and active. The fault zone is active as well, and earthquakes occur every few years. In 1862, after such an earthquake, an area of 200 square kilometers near Selenga’s delta fell apart, forming the Proval gulf. There are also many hot springs in the area.
The lake’s body is divided into 3 basins: North Basin (900 meters in depth), Central Basin (1,600 meters in depth) and South Basin (1,400 meters in depth). The basins are separated by fault-controlled accommodation zones, which rise to depths of approximately 300 meters. The Academician Ridge separates the North and Central basins, while the Central and South basins are separated by the area around Selenga’s Delta and Buguldeika Saddle. Cape Ryty, considered sacred by the local indigenous population, is located on the northwestern coast of the lake.
Mountains and Islands
Mountains surround the lake. To the South, there is the Chamar-Daban mountain range, with its highest peak Utulinskaya Podkova, 2,396 meters high. Khrebet Ulan-Burgasy mountain is situated to the East of the lake and Barguzin Mountains to the North-East. At the lake’s northwestern shore, Baikal Mountains rise steeply over the lake, with their highest peak, Chersky Mountain measuring 2,572 meters. The Baikal Mountains and the taiga form a national park.
Another unique trait of the lake is the fact that its sediments have overriding continental ice sheets have not produced scouring of its sediments. It is also the only confined lake in which evidence of gas hydrates exists.
Baikal lake has 27 islands. The most important one is Olkhon Island, which is 72 kilometers long and the third largest island that can be found on a lake.
As part of Russia’s plans to conquest Siberia, an expansion into the Buryat region from around Lake Baikal took place between 1628 and 1658. It is during this period that Lake Baikal was discovered. In 1643, Kurbat Ivanov was the first Russian to see Lake Baikal and the Olkhon Island. One year later, Ivan Pokhabov went up the Angara to reach Baikal, the first Russian to have used this difficult route. He then crossed the lake in order to explore the lower Selenge River.
In 1675, the Moldavian writer, diplomat and traveler Nicolae Milescu was the first one to describe the lake and all the rivers that flow in it in detail, when he passed by its southwestern side on his way to China. He was also the first one to point out Lake Baikal’s great depth.
But habitation in the Baikal region goes back much more than that. One of the early known tribes were the Kurykans, who were also the predecessors of two ethnic groups: the Buryats and Yakuts.
The lake was also a site of the Han–Xiongnu War, a war in which the armies of the Han dynasty defeated the Xiongnu forces from the 2nd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. They recorded Lake Baikal as a "huge sea" (hanhai). Later on, in the 6th century, the Kuryans (a Siberian tribe who inhabited the region), named it into something that translates as "much water". Later, it also received names like "natural lake" (Baygal nuur) from the Buryats or "rich lake" (Bay göl) from the Yakuts. Until Russians discovered it in 1643, the lake was virtually unknown to Europeans.
The lake has been commonly called in the past the "Baikal Sea". Even today, the strait between Olkhon Island and the lake’s western shore is called "the Little Sea".
The Trans-Siberian Railway and Baikal’s First Navigational Chart
Between 1896 and 1902, the epic Trans-Siberian Railway was built. The incredible railway passes Lake Baikal around its southwestern shore and its construction required 200 bridges and 33 tunnels. During the railway’s construction, Fedor Kirillovich Drizhenko led a a large hydrogeographical expedition that compiled a detailed navigational chart of the lake.
The White Russian Army crossed the frozen lake in 1920 but the wind on the open lake was so cold, that many people died. The level of the lake has also raised by 1.4 meters since 1956, due to the construction of the Irkutsk Dam on Angara River.
Lake Baikal is of tremendous value to science. It is extremely rich in biodiversity, and it boasts an impressive number of animal and plant species. Current estimates indicate that more than 1,000 species of plants and around 2,500 animal species are hosted by the lake. However, many believe that the actual figures are considerably higher.
The "Galápagos of Russia"
The lake is also called the "Galápagos of Russia", due to its uniqueness, which is also attested to by the fact that more than 80% of its animal species are endemic (only live here). The Baikal seal (or the nerpa) is the only true freshwater seal, and one of only three populations of freshwater seals. The other two populations are comprised of subspecies of the ringed seal.
Among the many plant species, one must note the marsh thistle, which is at the eastern limit of its geographic range at Lake Baikal. The lake’s climatic asymmetry also led to a great variety of plants in its basin: pine forests dominate the eastern part, deciduous forests the northern part, and coniferous forests and mountain steppes the western part. The forests surrounding the lake host 10 endangered plant species.
There are about 60 species of fish native to the lake, and more than half of them are endemic. Omul is probably the best-known local species of fish. It is an endemic whitefish, and smoked omul is sold in lots of markets from around the lake. Other important commercial fish species include the Baikal sturgeon, the white grayling and the black grayling.
Three families live exclusively in Baikal: Cottocomephoridae (Baikal sculpins) Comephoridae (golomyankas or Baikal oilfish) and Abyssocottidae (deep-water sculpins). Particularly interesting are 2 species of golomyanka. These species of fish are translucent and have long fins. Their habitat is between depths of 100 to 500 meters, but do occur much shallower or deeper. They represent the Baikal’s seal food source and are the lake’s largest fish biomass.
Invertebrates As expected, Lake Baikal also boasts a rich array of invertebrates. Epischura baikalensis is the dominating zooplankton here, accounting for up to 80-90% of the total biomass. Some of the most diverse groups of invertebrates include freshwater snails, turbellarian worms, and amphipod crustaceans.
All of the 350+ species and subspecies of amphipods are endemic. High levels of oxygen in the lake’s water has been linked to the "gigantism" of some of Lake Baikal’s amphipods. Among these "giants", spiny Acanthogammarus can be found both in shallow and deep waters, and they can reach up to 7 cm in length.
A Heaven for Snails and Sponges
There are about 150 species of freshwater snails known to inhabit Lake Baikal, out of which 117 are endemic.The majority of Bikal snails are small and have thin shells. Megalovalvata baicalensis and Benedictia baicalensis are 2 of the most common snail species.
Lake Baikal is also a heaven for aquatic freshwater oligochaetes. There are about 200 known species, with more than 160 of them endemic. There are 13 species of leeches, and 4 polychaetes. A large percentage of the several hundred species of nematodes are undescribed.
At least 18 sponge species can be found in the lake, 14 of which are from the Lubomirskiidae family, which is endemic. The sponges here are unusually large compared to other freshwater species and can grow up to 1 meter or more. Most sponges are green, but can also be yellow or brown.
There are several organizations which conduct research on Lake Baikal, most of which are governmental. There is also the Baikal Research Centre, which is independent.
Deepest Freshwater Dive
Two small submersibles, Mir-1 and Mir-2, descended to a depth of 1,580 meters (5,223 ft), in July 2008. However, this is not the deepest freshwater dive. That world record is held by Anatoly Sagalevich who descended to a depth of 1,637 m (5,371 ft). This of course happened also in Lake Baikal in 1990, aboard a Pisces submersible.
Neutrino research has been conducted since 1993 at the Baikal Deep Underwater Neutrino Telescope.
"The Pearl of Siberia", another one of Baikal’s nicknames, is an attraction for investors in the tourism industry. The Russian government declared the region a special economic zone in 2007. The seven-story Hotel Mayak is located in the popular Listvyanka resort .
As an example of sustainable development, in 2009 a german NGO called Baikalplan built (in collaboration with Russia) the Frolikha Adventure Coastline Track, which is a 100-kilometer (62 miles) trail.
Environment In 1966, the Baykalsk Pulp and Paper Mill was built on the shoreline, which discharged waste into Baikal. The plant was closed in November 2008 due to unprofitability, after decades of protests. In March 2009, it was announced that the plant would never open again, but on January 4th 2010, production was resumed. In September 2013, the paper mill ultimately went bankrupt. A Russian Nature Reserves Expo Center was built in its place.
East Siberia-Pacific Ocean Oil Pipeline
The Russian oil company Transneft planned to build a pipeline that would have come close to just 800 meters of the lake shore, in an area of substantial seismic activity. Its plan was met with great opposition from the local citizens, Greenpeace, Russian environmental activists and the Baikal pipeline opposition. The company agreed to change the pipeline’s route 40 kilometers to the North after Vladimir Putin’s intervention.
The Russian government announced in 2006 its plans to build the first International Uranium Enrichment Center in the world in Angarsk, 95 kilometers from the lake. Many environmentalists agree this would be a disaster for the region. Approximately 90% of the enriched material would be stored near the Baikal region.
A World Treasure
Undoubtedly, Lake Baikal is one of the world’s greatest treasures, and it should be treated as such. The surrounding landscape with its mountains, tundra, boreal forests, steppes, islands is exceptionally beautiful. The unique wildlife is an unimaginable asset, along with the 1,200 historical, cultural and archaeological monuments in the region. However, the threats surrounding Lake Baikal are real, and its unique properties could be lost. Various steps are currently taken in order to make sure that the area remains protected.
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