Troubled Water: The list of Lake Baikal's wonders goes on and on. And so, Peter Thomson writes, does the growing list of risks.
By Robert Rosenberg
Trivia hounds the world over can identify Lake Baikal as the largest and deepest fresh-water lake on the planet. But few would be able to describe the lake's other myriad wonders. That Baikal's waters are among the purest on Earth. That Baikal holds a fifth of the planet's liquid fresh water: enough to supply three liters to every living person for 3,000 years. That Baikal reaches more than 1 1/2 kilometers deep—and up to 9 1/2 kilometers through sediment to bedrock, a rift approaching the world's deepest abyss, the Pacific's Mariana Trench. That, while most of the Earth's other deep lakes support life to 250 meters, there are living things squirming in Baikal 1,600 meters below the surface. That Baikal is home to 1,750 unique organisms, including the world's only fresh-water seal, the nerpa. The list of Baikal's wonders grows larger to this day, yet your average citizen of the world hardly knows Baikal at all.
Peter Thomson's "Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal" might help rectify the situation. Thomson, an environmental journalist, was the founding producer and editor of National Public Radio's "Living on Earth" program. In July of 2000, after a bruising divorce, Thomson set out on a life-altering trip with his younger brother James. The pair would travel by land and sea from Boston to Siberia, where they would explore Baikal before continuing around the world to the United States. "I've come to Baikal to try to take some kind of measure of the place," Thomson writes, "to find some kind of truth about it and lessons for other places, and myself."
Thomson's book is padded with the emotional and logistical baggage of his journey circumnavigating the globe. A bizarre decision to narrate events out of chronological order creates a problem of focus, with clumsy flashbacks, letters home and unnecessary passages of stream-of-consciousness. Thomson is an introvert who worries himself silly about visa issues and often admits to hating his journey. He does not speak Russian, and spends his time on trains fearful of leaving his berth. As a writer, he rarely dramatizes conversations, relying instead on summary, so the cast of potentially colorful characters he meets never entirely comes to life. It is not, then, for the pleasures of armchair travel that one should approach "Sacred Sea."
Rather, the jewels in this important book are the chapters focusing on Baikal. When Thomson is contemplating the lake, imagining a nerpa's dive or weighing Baikal's myths versus its science, his writing is energized and confident, and "Sacred Sea" accumulates the power of a fair-minded but impassioned essay. To what extent is Baikal being damaged by humans? How can it best be protected? These are the questions Thomson spends the bulk of his journey investigating.
It's difficult to believe that humans have any effect on a lake of Baikal's size and reputation. Many Russians still buy into the myth of Siberia's inexhaustibility, of its "endless forests, uncountable numbers of fur-bearing animals, mines that yield 4,000 pounds of gold a year, an unfathomable lake that makes pollution disappear." And much of this is true. As Thomson skillfully explains, Baikal does pull off a unique miracle of self-purification—through its miniature shrimp, the Epischura baicalensis. These animals strain pollution from the water like "a tiny vacuum cleaner about the size of a poppy seed." Baikal's zillions of shrimp filter "the lake's entire volume every twenty-three years." Thus "Baikal is in a perfect state!" one scientist announces. "It is huge, it is rich, it is healthy, it is wise, and it is not similar to any phenomena in the world!"
Thomson is wary. "Baikal is perfect," he thinks. "It's a wonderful, soothing story, which exalts the lake even as it frees humans from their responsibility to care for it."
Indeed, many others warn Thomson that "waste from factories, farms, and human settlements is testing the limits of Baikal's delicate ecology." Siberian industry helped spearhead the nation's economic and technological achievements of the 1960s and 1970s. Three dams on the Angara River produced electricity for aluminum, petrochemical and airplane factories–all within 50 kilometers of Baikal. The result is a "contaminated hot zone." The region has been deemed "irreparably damaged" by the Rand Corporation. A Soviet government study found that in 1988 the city of Angarsk produced more harmful air pollution than all of Moscow, and the government recently admitted that Irkutsk and nearby cities have some of the poorest air quality in the nation.
Among the worst culprits is the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, whose red-and-white striped smokestacks "rise above the lakeshore at the edge of town like candy canes laced with strychnine." The plant was built in the 1950s as a source of cellulose fiber for military aircraft tires, to be produced using Baikal's "super-pure water." Nikita Khrushchev supposedly said, "Baikal, too, must work." Today the plant produces newsprint and bleached cellulose pulp, sending sulfates, phenols, heavy metals, E. coli and air pollutants into and over the lake.
The head of the Baikalsk plant's Department of Nature Protection insists that none of this is doing any damage. To prove it, she invites the Thomsons to drink water at the spot where the factory's spillway rushes into Baikal. "The treated water meets all the standards of drinking water in the Russian Federation," she promises. The brothers decline.
While the lake's shrimp do cleanse pollution, unfortunately, that is just the beginning of the story. Epischura are at the bottom of the food chain, and predators at the top–seals, raptors, bears and humans–are at risk of larger effects of contamination. The process, known as biomagnification, means that concentrations of pollutants "jump by several orders of magnitude from one link in the food chain to the next." So marine mammals like the nerpas, which accumulate enormous concentrations of toxic chemicals, are dying off. And humans, who eat the fish that eat the epischura, might likewise be in danger of grave health risks. Thomson muses on the "nasty irony in Baikal's stupendous self-cleansing act: extraordinarily pure water, extraordinarily contaminated animals."
Still, what the effects of the pollutants are and where they come from (there is a penchant to blame Mongolia) are fiercely debated. As the world has seen so often in the United States' own recent environmental record, it is far too easy for a government to raise doubts about science long enough to kick the environmental can to some future generation. After intense discussions with Yevgenia Tarasova at Irkutsk State University, who has spent her life studying the lake, Thomson concludes, "Until or unless scientists can draw an unbroken line of pollution from specific sources through Baikal's water and fish to specific health problems in nerpas and humans—the people with the power to make decisive changes may remain unconvinced of the need to do so."
So while the rich and powerful discuss harebrained schemes, like marketing Baikal drinking water to China, grassroots activists rally international support for conservation efforts and eco-friendly development. A critical race to save the lake is on, and Thomson's travelogue will help the effort. "If there were several Lake Baikals in the world, maybe the concern would not be that high," Tarasova says. "Unfortunately, there is only one Lake Baikal."
–Robert Rosenberg is the author of the novel "This Is Not Civilization." He teaches writing at Bucknell University.
Copyright © 2007 The Moscow Times