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Lake Baikal: The World’s Deepest Lake That Holds 22-23% of the World’s Freshwater

BY Sonal Panse February 21, 2019
Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal. (W0zny/Wikimedia Commons)

Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest and deepest lake, and it also has the distinction of having the clearest water. It holds around 20% to 23% of all the freshwater that is present on earth. The water volume contained in Lake Baikal – around 23,600 cubic kilometres of water – equals to the water volume of all the Great Lakes in North America.

Lake Baikal: The world’s largest freshwater lake

Estimated to be around 25 or 30 million years old, Lake Baikal is a rift lake in a valley formed by the Baikal Rift System. That is, the lake came into existence due to the geological movements of the earth’s tectonic plates. Due to the movement of the plates, earthquakes are common in the region, and the lake boundaries continue to expand. Some researchers predict that if Lake Baikal continues to expand it will become an ocean. This, of course, could take many hundreds or maybe more years, since the annual rate of expansion is infinitesimal.

If you want to visit Lake Baikal, you will have to head for Siberia, to a mountain and Taiga bound region that lies between the Buryat Republic on the southeast and the Irkutsk Oblast on the northwest. The Baikal Mountains and the Barguzin range stand guard on two sides and the rest is the open Taiga (which is known as boreal forest or snow forest). The largest, nearby city is Irkutsk.

More than 300 rivers and streams drain into Lake Baikal, the most prominent ones of these being the Selenga River, the Snezhnaya River, and the Barguzin River. Lake Baikal itself, however, only has one outlet and drains out only into the Angara River. This river, in turn, flows into the Yenisei River and eventually joins the Arctic Ocean.

Clearwater of Lake Baikal

The crystal clearwater of Lake Baikal. (Max Dawncat / Wikimedia Commons)

The waters of Lake Baikal have an astounding clarity – it is clean, transparent water that has a very high oxygen content. This is due to the presence of a large number of aquatic organisms that purify the water continuously. In winter, if you look down the parts of the lake that are still unfrozen, you can see down to a depth of 130 feet. In summer, you can see down to a depth of 46 feet. The clarity comes from pure melted ice water, an absence of mineral salts in the water, and the presence of debris eating organisms.

Lake Baikal during winter.

Lake Baikal during winter. (Max Pixel)

From January to May-June, the lake waters remain frozen, with ice as thick as 6.6 feet in some areas. Unless you wear appropriate warm winter clothing, however, you could put yourself in danger of getting frostbite and hypothermia from the cold winds that blow unimpeded over the frozen lake. In winter, the water is the coldest right under the ice, and in summer, the sun warms the water at the surface and, since it cannot reach the depths, the water there is coldest in the summer months.

Lake Baikal from space.

Lake Baikal from space. (NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center)

In windy and stormy weather, the lake can send up high waves, more than 30 feet high. 

At its maximum depth, Lake Baikal goes down to 5,387/5,354 feet. It is 79.5 kilometres wide at its widest point and is 636/640 kilometres long. It has a surface area of 31,722 square kilometres. There are 27 islands in the lake, and most of them are uninhabited. The largest island is Olkhon, which is 72 feet long. About 1,500 people live on it.

Biodiversity in the Lake Baikal region

Known as the Russian Galapagos, the Lake Baikal region is one of the richest and most biodiverse regions in the world and is home to over 3,700 plant, bird, and animal species. At least 80% of these species are endemic to Lake Baikal. That is, they are unique to the region and you won’t find them anywhere else. Take the Nerpa seal, for instance, which is the only freshwater seal in the world, and the Golomyanka fish, which does not have any scales.

Baikal seal

Baikal seal. (Per Harald Olsen / Wikimedia Commons)

The Omul fish, which has commercial fishing value and which consumers consider a rare delicacy; is now on the endangered list. The decline in the omul fish populations is due to excessive fishing, poaching, droughts that decrease the water level and its nutrient content, rise in water temperatures – the Omul is a fish that only thrives in icy-cold waters.

There are over 50 fish species, over 300 bird species, and over 100 types of worms, molluscs, and other invertebrates that make Lake Baikal their home; the worms, molluscs, and invertebrates help to purify the lake water and keep it well-oxygenated. Other animals found in the region include bison, elks, Siberian roe deer, boars, bears, wolves, foxes, sables, ermines, and minks.

The native tree species include cedar, fir, spruce, and Angara pine. Some of the trees in the area are over 800 years old.

Lake Baikal’s biodiversity remained protected for so long due to its geographical isolation from the rest of the world and so you can learn much about evolutionary science by studying the species here. In 1996, UNESCO listed the Lake Baikal region as a World Heritage Site.

History of Lake Baikal

Indigenous, nomadic people have inhabited the area around Lake Baikal for centuries. Their main source of revenue has always come from raising goats, sheep, cattle, horses, and camels, but, in the past, they were infamous for supplementing their income by raiding Chinese and Russian mainland settlements.

The Kurykans, who are the ancestors of the Buryat and Yakut people, lived in the area in the sixth century. The Han dynasty fought a war for 200 years with the Xiongnu tribal confederation in the region and stumbled upon the lake. They thought it was a sea.

Buryat of Olkhon Island

Buryat of Olkhon Island. (Аркадий Зарубин / Wikimedia Commons)

In 1643, the Russian explorer, Kurbat Afanasyevich Ivanov, discovered Lake Baikal, and other Russian explorers and adventurers soon followed. They built outpost forts and tried to bring the region under their control. This was easier said than done, and there were frequent conflicts with the indigenous tribes who wanted to continue their traditional way of life and did not want any newcomers to settle in the region, particularly newcomers that wanted to take over and rule over them. Like it or not though, they and their region soon became a part of the Russian Empire in the 17th century.

When the Russian government built the Trans-Siberian Railway between 1891 and 1916, the engineers constructed 200 bridges and 33 tunnels on the southwestern side of Lake Baikal. Most of Siberia’s population resides along this railway line. Siberia is a huge region, making up about 77% of Russia, and, due to its brutal winters and harsh landscape, only certain parts of it are habitable.

The Red Army fought with the Czechoslovak legion near Lake Baikal in 1918.

In 1920, the Tsarist General Vladimir Kappel and his White Russian Army, which the advancing Communist forces had put to rout, marched across the frozen Lake Baikal in the dead of winter. Many of the soldiers died from wind exposure during this march, which became infamous as the Great Siberian Ice March. The White Russian Army had to leave their dead behind and the corpses froze where they fell and remained there until the lake thawed in the spring.

Research on Lake Baikal

There is plenty to research still in the Lake Baikal region. Since the area remained perfectly preserved for millions of years, researchers can collect natural data that can provide them with a better understanding of how the climactic conditions developed here.

The lake may have formed due to seismic activity that fractured the earth’s crust and widened an already existing riverbed. It is possible that the formation of the lake’s basins occurred at different times over a period of several million years, and perhaps several small lakes combined to form the present Lake Baikal. One of the most recent geological formations is the Proval Bay which came into existence after an earthquake in Tsanaskoe in 1862.

Researchers think that the lake’s underwater volcanoes release gases into the water. This phenomenon may explain why the dark circles that often appear on the ice that forms over the lake surface. According to the researchers, these circles are a result of the released gas bubbles bursting against the ice sheet. The gases may also explain the mass deaths of fish like Sockeye Salmon, Whitefish and Cisco in areas far from the industries; that is, in areas where there isn’t that much industrial waste to cause such deaths.

Some researchers think that the gases may also be responsible for the frequently reported sightings of glowing orbs floating above the lake surface. The locals think that the orbs are evil spirits warning people to stay away from the lake, but there may be a more scientific explanation. The orbs may be the result of the spontaneous ignition of natural methane gas. However, the researchers have not so far found any concrete evidence of this. The locals, meanwhile, claim it could be UFOs and Aliens.

The Russians have sent the Mir I, Mir II, and other manned deep-water submersibles to map and study the bottom of Lake Baikal. The researchers found a large number of gas hydrates throughout the lake, in the depths as well as in the shallows. Gas hydrates are water-based, ice-like particles that contained trapped gases. They are an unusual find in freshwater lakes. Gas hydrates may prove to be valuable as a fuel source, or so the researchers hope, since you can get 160 to 180 cubic metres of natural gas from heating 1 cubic metre of gas hydrate.

The Baikal Deep Underwater Neutrino Telescope has been carrying out neutrino research in the lake since 1993.

Some researchers think that Lake Baikal is slowly becoming an ocean. This is because the shift in the tectonic plates under the lake is expanding the lake’s boundaries.

There is much still that we don’t know about Lake Baikal.

Threats to Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal has faced several environmental threats over the years. The Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mill, constructed in 1966 and maintained on the lake shore over the protests of scientists and local people, released chemicals from the paper-making process into the lake for over 40 years. The factory went bankrupt in September 2013, putting around 800 people out of work, but it was a blessing for Lake Baikal. The Russian government is planning on setting up an Expo Centre for the Russian Nature Reserve on the site of the factory.

There are other industries nearby that also discharge waste into the lake. The industrial waste pollution has exacerbated the growth of the invasive Spirogyra algae that feed on the waste and have proliferated rapidly in the lake. The toxic algae are destroying the lake’s ecosystem and killing water snails, sponges, fish, crustaceans, and other organisms that clean the lake waters. When the algae wash up on the lake shore, they have an incredibly foul stink, almost like that of dead, decaying bodies.

The uranium enrichment centre in Angarsk, 95 kilometres downstream from Lake Baikal, stores radioactive uranium that will prove to be very toxic to humans, animals, and the environment if it leaks and gets into the water bodies. Protesting environmental activists strongly pointed this out, but the Russian government ignored them.

In 2006, environmental activists succeeded in convincing the Russian government and the Russian oil pipelines state company Transneft to change the route of an oil pipeline that would, otherwise, have crossed very close to Lake Baikal in the north. There was a high chance it would have adversely impacted the environment there.

The construction of Mongolian hydro plants may affect the inflow of water from the Selenga River into Lake Baikal. Given that this river supplies Lake Baikal with almost 50% of its water, the lake water levels are likely to go down after Mongolia builds the river dams. This could result in more sediment deposits on the lake bottom and lead to habitat problems for the lake’s wildlife.

Lake Baikal in popular culture

Lake Baikal holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Russians, and the lake is mentioned in many popular folk songs. Two of these are – ‘Glorious Sea, Sacred Baikal’ and ‘The Wanderer.’

It was almost always referred to as a sea rather than a lake. A popular folklore term for it is the ‘Sacred Sea.’

According to local folklore, Jesus Christ visited the Lake Baikal region and was singularly unimpressed by its southern part. He exclaimed that there was nothing there, and that is why corn doesn’t grow in Dauria steppes. Another popular story puts Olkhon island as the birthplace of Genghis Khan.

The Russian government declared Lake Baikal as a special economic zone and has been encouraging the growth of the tourism industry here since that will create many job opportunities for the local people. Both domestic and international tourists visit Lake Baikal. The official annual figure is more than 500,000. They mostly stay in Listvyanka, Turka, and other settlements. While this may be good for the local economy, the same cannot be said about Lake Baikal. Tourists, unfortunately, leave a great deal of waste that adds to the growing pollution in the region.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Pink Lakes: Where Rose-Tinted Lakes Surrounded By Lush Greenery Are Truly a Sight to Behold“.

Fact Analysis:
STSTW Media strives to deliver accurate information through careful research. However, things can go wrong. If you find the above article inaccurate or biased, please let us know at [email protected]


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