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Lake Baikal

June 2, 2012 at 8:21 am
By Evia and Sophie

Before coming to Siberia, Lake Baikal was an abstract concept. We knew it was a lake, and a very big one. As it happens, Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest lake in the world. However, these superlatives don't make the lake; what distinguishes it is its incredibly diverse and unique ecosystem. Baikal is home to the only freshwater seals in the world, the nerpa, as well as a range of unique fish species, including the omul - a tasty feature of the local cuisine. Most fundamental to the Baikal environment is the Epischura baicalensis - a species of zooplankton found only in Baikal which filters the water of all impurities. They are the reason for Baikal's reputation as being the most pristine lake on Earth.

Even without knowing any of this, at first sight we knew the lake was special. We instantly understood why the locals consider it a sacred place. It was the end of May, but large chunks of ice still lined the shores. Beyond the ice was a stretch of the clearest blue water we'd ever seen. THe expanse of water seemed limitless, yet we could see the mountains bordering it in the distance. Over the course of our visit, we've learned more about Baikal's unique qualities and viewed it from many different perspectives. Upon each new sighting, the lake's beauty only increases.

However, as pristine as the lake may seem, there are factors threatening Baikal's perfection. We visited an environmental NGO in Irkutsk called The Baikal Wave where representatives outlined some of the dangers Baikal faces. From our experiences, litter seemed to be one of the largest threats to Baikal; tourists and residents contribute equally to trash accumulation on the shores and surrounding area. This problem stems from a lack of trash pick-up in villages around the lake. Though litter is the most visible danger, the representative told us that climate change and local factories with environmentally unfriendly practices are the larger issues.

For many reasons, some not completely understood, life in Baikal depends on the lake's cold climate. Global climate change threatens the balance of this unique ecosystem. Current research shows that temperatures around Baikal are, in fact, rising and this change could have a devastating effect on the environment in the near future (Thomson 229,272). A more immediate threat is pollution from local industry - specifically, that from the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, located on the lake's southernmost shore. Research on the effects of the paper mill's pollution provides ambiguous results, due to the biases of two conflicting parties. NGO research uncovered high levels of pollutants from the paper mill and other local factories in Baikal seals' fat, as well as in omul consumed by humans (Thomson 207-09). Government funded research, however, shows that pollution levels aren't significantly high, and that the source of the pollution is not from Russia, but from Mongolia (Thomson 212). Our guide at the Baikal Limnological Museum also informed us that the pollution came from Mongolia. The evidence may be controversial, but it's obvious that the fate of Baikal could be in serious danger.

There is hope for the future of Baikal. Local opinion is that tourism will help the region. Tourism will generate jobs and money, allowing factories to close or update their practices, exchanging the unclean for the environmentally friendly. Driving along the coast, we saw many new constructions build to attract visitors.

In our opinion, tourism is not necessarily the answer. More people will inevitably generate more waste and pollution and turn the lake into a typical tourist attraction. A large part of Baikal's appeal is it's remoteness. Imagining resorts on Baikal's shores makes Evia want to cry, and Sophie sick. Hope, though, may lie in ecotourism. Leave-no-trace methods of visiting natural sites bring money to the area, but also help to maintain the natural beauty of the landscape and ecosystem. Terrible roads (believe us, we know!) and expense will keep those not incredibly determined away. We can only hope that those determined enough to see Baikal want to protect it as much as we do.

Sources and further information

The Baikal Wave Website - it's in Russian, but has a lot of good pictures and videos

Thomson, Peter.Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal.Oxford University Press: New York, 2007.