Lake Baikal is located in southeastern Siberia, a place that I once pictured as a mostly frozen, always cold wasteland. After all, it was where the tsars and the Soviet government banished all the people they wanted to be rid of. But Siberia is not a frozen wasteland. It includes towns, even cities and industry. It has a rich human history and great natural diversity.
Unlike most of the world's lakes that were formed in the neighborhood of 10,000-100,000 years ago, the crescent-shaped Lake Baikal is 25 million years old! It was formed by a deep separation, or rift, in the earth's crust. The rift continues to widen about two centimeters a year. The lake, which has been designated a UNESCO World HeritageSite, is so large it contains 20% of the world's fresh water.
Known as "the Galapagos of Russia," Lake Baikal isan astonishingly rich ecosystem. In fact, of more than 2,600 known species of plants and animals in and around the lake,more than 80% of them are found nowhere else on earth!
For example, the nerpa is the world's only freshwater seal, and it lives only in Lake Baikal. And the omul salmon, widely regarded as Lake Baikal's tastiest fish, is found nowhere else. Many other species of fish, crustaceans, snails, and worms are also endemic to Lake Baikal.
The two main reasons for the extraordinary biodiversity and huge proportion of endemic species in Lake Baikalarethe lake's extreme age and its isolation. Scientists believe that with 25 million years of evolution, as opposed to just thousands of years as with most of the world's lakes, the species inhabiting Lake Baikal have simply had time to evolve much further.
Besides, Lake Baikal has been largely cut off from surrounding areas because of the high, steep Barguzin Mountains that surround the lake. Thus,Baikal area species have evolved with little contact with similar species beyond the mountains.
These forested mountains around the lake are home to bear, mink, sable, reindeer, ermine, moose, and many other species, some of which have become extinct in other areas. Fortunately, much of Lake Baikal's shoreline has been protected with national park status by the Russian government.
Lake Baikal is an extraordinarily clear lake, partly because of bottom vents that bring in warm water that is then circulated throughout the lake and partly because of millions of tiny crustaceans who continuously filter the lake's water. Writer Ian Frazier creates a vivid picture of this extraordinary lake's purity in his article, "Travels in Siberia,"about his trip across Siberia with two Russian companions, published in The New Yorker, August 10 & 17, 2009:
"When a wave rolls in on Baikal, and it curls to break, you can see stones on the bottom refracted in the vertical face of the wave. This glimpse, offered for just a moment in the wave's motion, is like seeing into the window of an apartment as you go by it on an elevated train. The moon happened to be full that night, and after it rose the stones on the bottom of the lake lay spookily illuminated in the moonlight. The glitter of the moon on the surface of the lake--the "moon road," Sergei called it--fluctuated constantly in its individual points of sparkling, with a much higher definition than any murky water could achieve. Light glitters differently on water this clear. I understood that I had never really seen the moon reflected on water before."
While this "jewel of Siberia" has received some important national and international protections, it has nonetheless beenaffected by pollution. Industrial pollution, entering the lake's southeast end from the Selenga River, as well as from other sources, has led to reductions in many species.
At the same time, with the lake attracting more attention and appreciation as a world treasure and popular vacation spot for nature lovers, efforts to protect this world marvel are increasing.