What do we know about Lake Baikal, in addition to the fact that it is the deepest and cleanest lake on the planet? Do we remember the exact details and do we know why it is the cleanest one? Well, I did not know much about the lake before this trip either. I collected all the most important and amazing facts about Baikal and I was very surprised.
Baikal is the largest reservoir of fresh water and contains a fifth of all the world's reserves. It could fill 9 billion Olympic swimming pools. Well, I have to admit the glaciers of Antarctica and Greenland are not included in these calculations. The entire population of Earth could live using just Baikal water for 40 years, assuming each person drinks on average 500 litres.
Angara is the only river outflowing from Baikal and it would take 400 years to take all the water out of Baikal, if the lake were not fed from any other water sources.
Epischura baikalensis are responsible for the transparency and pureness of the water. These are tiny planktonic copepods that filter water through themselves - a full glass a day! They are invisible to the naked eye; but you can see results of their work, for example, stones at the bottom are visible at a depth of 40 meters. They even filter oil from the bottom sediments, more than 4 thousand tons of oil annually fall into the waters of Lake Baikal! By the way, Baikal’s water composition is similar to distilled water.
Once every 383 years the water in Baikal fully renewed, more often and faster, water is renewed in the upper layer, the deep layers require several decades. The lake is 25 million years old. It has already outlived many lakes by many times, which average an age of 15,000 years. Recent studies claim that Baikal, with currents and storms, is a nascent ocean. But let’s not get into scientific explanations, just believe me - Baikal is not ageing. The water level on Lake Baikal is variable, it rose almost a meter after the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station was built in 1959, but history has seen bigger level changes - up to 3.5 meters. The real understanding of these numbers occurred to me on the ice, away from the rocky shores, when I stood on the ice and peered down under my dark fur boots into the blue-black depths.
The ice shell appears on Lake Baikal in January, when severe frosts come to Siberia. On such a day, ice builds up quickly - 4-5 cm per day. In winter, any water on Lake Baikal can turn into an ice masterpiece of the most unusual forms. During severe storms in late autumn and early winter, when the waves beat against the coast, the water freezes very quickly, forming fantastic grottoes, splashes and icicles.
Baikal is cracking with the roar of an artillery shell. Cracks appear constantly, this is a natural process. Most often it happens on cold and windy days. Looking down the depth of an ice cover is a spectacular scene.
Once the ice thickness is strong enough to withstand the weight of off-road vehicles, ice roads are opened on Lake Baikal, and one of them even has a federal status, but it’s temporary, of course. There are signs and information stands along the “icy” roads, for example, how to drive a car on ice. In winter, the ice thickness reaches an average of 80 cm to 2 meters.
It's amazing what can you see on the ice of Lake Baikal: hummocks, large "dead" cracks and huge perfectly round circles with a diameter of up to 4 km. For many years, scientists were puzzled and clueless about the circles. Well, guesses were confirmed by expert limnologists - under the ice rings there are circular currents, i.e. whirlpools. Due to the difference in water temperature, the ice on the surface darkens, saturated with water and forms a circle. Such a phenomenon is often found in oceans, but only in one lake in the world — Baikal.
The ice condition is monitored daily by special squads of the Ministry of Emergencies. Their main task is respond quickly to temperature changes, especially in the spring, and determine the last day of road traffic on Lake Baikal. After that, traffic is stopped until the next winter. It’s interesting that puddles on the ice are not a dangerous sign, it is just melting snow. The main factor is if the meltwater has been absorbed by the ice, that means that the ice has become porous, and it’s strictly forbidden to drive and even walk on it.
Scientists admit that every year the winter season on Lake Baikal is getting shorter. The daily temperatures of the last winters are not typical for the Irkutsk region and are higher than the average levels. The amount of precipitation is decreasing, the winds are not that strong anymore, especially the terrible “Sarma wind” (the coldest and the strongest one in the Baikal region). Speaking in numbers: the average annual air temperature has risen by 0.34 degrees Celsius over the past ten years, the average wind speed has decreased by 12.5%, and the amount of precipitation has decreased by 5 mm. The duration of being frozen has decreased by 18 days.
By the end of March, strips of ice covering the coast can be seen, in some places open water can already be seen, gaps break the ice fields, puddles appear on the crossings.
The sun shines more in the "ice kingdom" than at the Black Sea - 2500 hours a year. Baikal is called the Lake of the sun. Daylight penetrates through the ice, colonies of planktonic algae grow under its rays. Fish have something to eat, which means there is something to eat for the Baikal seal (Nerpa), the largest mammals of Lake Baikal. The entire population of seals is about 110,000 animals, and they eat more than 60 thousand tons of fatty Baikal oilfish every year.
Baikal seals (Nerpa) are the most amazing animal on Baikal. No one evolutionary biologist can explain where they came from. Perhaps they came from the shores of the Arctic Ocean 300,000 years ago, but could not return because of the glaciers. These thick and furry floats are endemic to Lake Baikal. They hibernate under the ice, scratching the cracks from the inside to breathe. The most amazing fact that I learned about Baikal seals is that they can delay a pregnancy until a later or better time. Such an incredible ability that would definitely be useful for humans. The embryo simply stops developing, falls into a suspended animation and "sleeps" until the next mating season. If a female seal takes advantage of the postponement, she will have to give birth to two cubs at once.
Another famous endemic is considered to be the local fish Omul, beloved by the locals. The female omul spawns up to 30 thousand eggs. If all the hatched larvae survived, then in 5-7 years, Baikal would be filled to the brim with omul. But out of 10 thousand eggs only 5-7 fish survive. Anyway, this is more than enough for a population under controlled fishing restrictions.
Almost 70% of the plants and animals living and growing on Lake Baikal cannot be found anywhere else on our planet. This is a unique biosphere that should be protected, so that we can watch the games of evolution in the time intervals allotted to us.
The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A visit to winter Baikal is recommended by the Russian geographical society.
Also read about Baikal:
How I Met a Shaman at Olkhon: What Spirits of Ancestors Explain
How I spent the night in a tent on the ice of Lake Baikal
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 1. Listvyanka. Taltsy
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 2. Olkhon Island, Ogoy Island.
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 3. Buryatia
Ivolginsky datsan: A cloister that gives happiness
Questions and life hacks about a winter trip to Lake Baikal
Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1