Lake Baikal

The Pearl of Siberia

 

At first glance, it seems a most unlikely setting. Whoever expected to find a rich clustering of life forms – a variable biodiversity hotspot – in a fresh-water lake in Siberia? How could an oasis, sometimes compared to the Galapagos Islands, be found on one of the coldest, most unforgiving locales on earth? But lake Baikal, Siberia’s ‘blue pearl’ or ‘sacred sea’ is unlike any other lake on the planet. At 20 to 30 million years old, it is the world’s oldest lake, and it is also the deepest, extending more than 1.6 kilometers from top to bottom. Containing 20 percent of the global supply of fresh surface water, Baikal holds more water than the five Great Lakes combined. In addition, while many of the world’s lakes are drying up, Baikal keeps getting bigger – both wider and deeper – because it is situated between two huge earth plates that are slowly moving apart. The new volume thus created fills with an additional five billion gallons of water each year.

 

Surrounded by mountains on all sides, with 336 tributaries flowing in and only one river flowing out, Lake Baikal is an isolated, self-contained ecosystem. It is home to some 2,000 species of animals and plants found nowhere else on earth. These species include the Omul salmon, 140 species of flatworms and the Baikal seal, or ‘nerpa’, the only seal species known to reside exclusively in freshwater. Wildlife biologists are still struggling to explain how the nepra wound up in this lake; 2000 miles from its closest relative, the Arctic ringed seal.

 

We are seeing diversity that you would expect over a continental scale, taking place within a single lake. Over the past decade says the Finnish Museum of Natural History, 20 new species are discovered each year within Baikal’s clear waters and on its shores.

 

Part of the explanation likely owes to the lake’s longevity. Though most lakes clog with sediments over time, Baikal has persisted for tens of millions of years, allowing ample opportunities for evolution and speciation to run their course. Baikal also stands out from other freshwater lakes by virtue of its active hydrothermal vents – breeding grounds, as marine research suggests, of strange, never_before_seen life forms.

 

These factors and others insure that Lake Baikal will remain a focus of concerted scientific inquiry for years to come. But it’s also a place of breathtaking beauty that has been compared to the Grand Canyon in terms of scale and splendor. Speaking of the lake, Russian author Valentin Rasputin once remarked, “man does not have enough feelings to respond to this wonder.”

 

 

 

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