6. Natural History Magazine

Natural History Magazine, November, 2007
By Laurence A. Marschall

Siberia"s Lake Baikal, like so much that is Russian, is riddled with contradictions. Halfway between the Urals and the Pacific, the lake is so remote that few Russians have seen its shores, even though they regard it with a mystic reverence far surpassing the American devotion to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. As for non-Russians, few foreigners appreciate Baikal"s uniqueness"if they know of its existence at all. Yet Baikal surely ranks among the greatest natural wonders of the world. Its crescent-shaped basin, though outranked in surface area by Lake Superior and a few other bodies of water, is far deeper and far greater in capacity than any other lake: Baikal, by itself, holds a fifth all the freshwater on Earth.

Formed 25 million years ago, the "blue eye of Siberia" is thousands of times older than the Great Lakes. And because Baikal is so isolated, a kind of watery analogue to Australia or New Zealand, its aquatic ecosystem has evolved in unique directions. Among more than twenty-five species of fish that live exclusively in the lake, the most abundant are weird creatures called golomyankas, whose bodies are translucent. No more than a foot long, they swim with their heads up, like seahorses, and bear their young live. The lake is even home to a singular species of mammal, the nerpa, the world"s only freshwater seal, which can spend as long as three-quarters of an hour in the frigid depths before coming up for air.

What makes Baikal even more remarkable is the purity of its water. No cities abut the lake, only a few towns with low-five-figure populations, and the only roads of note, along with the Trans-Siberian Railway line, lie along the far southern end. Scarcely 80,000 people make their homes along the 1,200 miles of shoreline, most in tiny settlements accessible only by boat. The only major sources of pollution come from a pulp and paper mill on the southern shore, and from effluent dumped into inflowing rivers by cities and farms in Siberia and Mongolia. At first glance, the world"s greatest lake seems an astonishingly pristine and untroubled place.

Peter Thomson, the founding editor and producer of National Public Radio"s ecology news show Living On Earth, made his first trip to Baikal in 2000. In part, his goal was to find out for himself whether the Edenic character of Baikal was fact or myth. His account of that journey is a hybrid of environmental reporting and personal travelogue, the product of a six-month respite Thomson took after his marriage ended and his mother died. Casual readers will enjoy his accounts of meandering across the Pacific on a container ship with his younger brother, camping among Siberian aspens, and feasting on reindeer meat under the northern lights. But the focal points of his narrative are Thomson"s vivid encounters with activists, scientists, and residents of the Baikal region. Just how pristine was the lake, he asked them, and how likely was it to remain that way?

The answer, it turns out, is as murky as Baikal"s waters are clear. Baikalian optimists view the lake as a self-cleaning ecosystem, constantly filtered by tiny shrimplike crustaceans called Epischura baicalensis. According to one local scientist, those zooplankton, endemic to Baikal, "consume every molecule of any substance that comes to its waters," making it impossible to overload the lake with pollutants. Others, equally eloquent, see glowering clouds on the horizon. They reasonably fear increased development, swelling amounts of effluent from distant cities, insufficient preservation of the national reserves and parklands along Baikal"s shore, and the disruption of Baikal"s ecosystem by global warming.

Whether the optimists or the pessimists are right, they do agree on one thing: the choices made and actions taken in the coming century will determine whether or not Baikal will remain one of Mother Russia"s most timeless treasures.

–Laurence A. Marschall, author of The Supernova Story, is W.K.T. Sahm Professor of Physics at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and director of Project CLEA, which produces widely used simulation software for education in astronomy.

Copyright © Natural History Magazine, Inc., 2007

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