Siberia’s Baikal: The Greatest Lake
You know, we Siberians live in fear of being exiled to Moscow, says Leonid Yevseyev, and we both laugh. Yevseyev, a native-born Siberian, is beside me on a promontory as we look out over a stunning panorama – the mountain-rimmed lake called “Baikal.” Here the land plunges one hundred feet to waters that are a vibrant blue-green, so transparent that rocks 10 feet beneath the surface are clearly visible in the glaring sun. Bordering the meadow around us is a dense forest of pine and larch, spreading a resinous fragrance. Exiled to Moscow? Leonid and I agree: only if they take us away from here at gunpoint.
Ask almost any Russian about Baikal and the response is filled with superlatives: It is the deepest lake in the world (5,700 feet to the bottom), the largest by volume (holding 20 percent of Earth’s liquid surface freshwater) and the oldest (between 25 and 30 million years). While passing through Moscow on my many trips to Baikal, I mention my destination to friends and acquaintances and their response is invariable. Eyes take on a faraway look, voices drop close to a whisper. “Baikal,” they repeat, “I hope to go there someday.” It’s almost a prayer.
For most of us, the very name “Siberia” conjures up visions of a cold, bleak wasteland as portrayed in the film Dr. Zhivago. Yet summer around Baikal is glorious. Days are warm, even hot. All around the lake meadows are splashed with brilliant wildflowers and cool green forests invite exploration. The lake is rimmed by mountains, some rising thousands of feet above the surface waters and rivaling many of North America’s scenic wonders.
Located in south-central Siberia, Baikal harbors a diverse ecosystem. More than 1,700 species of plants and animals are found nowhere else on Earth. But one endemic species is most unusual – the nerpa, the world’s only freshwater seal. Related to the northern-ringed seal, it isn’t clear how this oceanic species made its way overland to Baikal more than 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean. One theory suggests that, confronted by advancing glaciers during a previous ice age, the seals were forced to migrate up the Yenisey and Angara rivers from the Arctic ocean to Baikal.
On one of my last visits, I watched six nerpa as they scrambled awkwardly onto rocks just offshore Tonkii Island near the lake’s northeastern coast. There is little room on the rocks; fighting for space, the seals wave their long, sharp claws at a latecomer as it tries to muscle its way in. Their sleek, fat bodies glisten in the sun. They are the world’s smallest pinnipeds, averaging less than five feet in length, but they have the longest lifespan of all seals; some females live as long as 56 years.
On my past visits to Tonkii Island I usually saw scores of seals. My notes from July 1996 are revealing: “. . . counted 150 nerpa sunning on rocks and swimming in the clear waters nearby, plus an estimated 200 heads bobbing in the waters off the north end of the island.”
I know from past experience that the numbers of nerpa seen on any given day may vary greatly. But seeing only six individuals is disturbing. Nobody seems to know exactly how many nerpa there are in Baikal. Official surveys have varied greatly. In the year 2000, the Greenpeace organization came up with a figure close to 65,000, which some conservationists suspect may be too high. Counting nerpa seems to be a very inexact science.
Despite the uncertainty, the Russian government permits hunters to kill 3,500 nerpa each year. However, there is little enforcement of that quota and illegal hunting flourishes. One researcher estimated that in 2001 poachers killed more than 12,000 nerpa. The pelt of a single young nerpa may bring a month’s normal salary in this poor region.
The nerpa stands at the top of the lake’s food chain in which pollutants are magnified in the complex succession of levels up from phytoplankton to the fish-eating species. In 2005, scientists at the Irkutsk Academy of Sciences found that high concentrations of PCBs in the seals’ body fat pose a serious threat to their immune system.
Many scientists assumed Baikal’s great volume of cold water would be slow in responding to global warming. But Baikal’s surface waters are warming quicker than expected – an average of 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit every decade. The resulting expansion of growing season for plankton and algae in the lake causes changes in the food chain and may eventually impact food supply for the nerpa.
In the 1960s a cellulose factory was built on the southern tip of the lake. The plant became a source of toxic wastes. Even under the repressive Soviet system of that time some citizens were brave enough to speak out against this threat to the lake’s ecosystem. Foremost was Dr. Grigory Galazii. In 1961, as director of the Baikal Limnological Institute, Galazii organized students and local citizens in protest marches through the streets of Irkutsk, a city located 60 kilometers west of Baikal. Though they failed to halt completion of the plant, they marked the beginning of Russia’s environmental movement.
There were political repercussions, however, for Galazii. By the time I first met him in 1990, authorities had removed him from his post at the Limnological Institute and made him director of the Limnological Museum, a caretaker’s job for a great scientist. He continued to campaign against the polluting plant and to raise the public’s awareness of the harm to the lake’s ecosystem.
I once asked him if he hadn’t courted severe punishment during the ‘60s and ‘70s when the Soviet regime regularly jailed and exiled (or worse) dissidents. Galazii laughed at the question.
“What could they do?” he asked. “Send me to Siberia? I already live here.”
Galazii died in 2000, perhaps broken-hearted by the refusal of the later Russian leaders, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, to honor their promises to close the pulp plant. And more trouble lay ahead.
“I hope you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, will use your weighty words to make the humane decision for the fate of Baikal, one of the symbols of Russia.”
This appeal appeared in a letter from my old friend Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russia’s beloved poet, novelist and film director. At my urging Yevtushenko wrote to President Vladimir Putin in April, 2006. A native of the Baikal region, he pleaded in the hope of altering the route of a proposed 2,500-mile oil pipeline that would skirt Baikal’s northern shore. (The pipeline was designed to connect the rich oilfields of western Siberia to a terminus near Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.) Given Yevtushenko’s prominence, Moscow’s leading newspaper, New Izvestia, published his letter to Putin.
Before Yevtushenko’s plea, environmental organizations in Russia had vigorously protested the routing of an oil pipeline within a half-mile of the treasured lake. Underscoring the urgency of their objection was the frequency of seismic activity in the region. Moreover, Baikal had been declared a World Heritage Site in 1996. Demonstrators marched in protest through the streets of Moscow and Irkutsk. Putin didn’t relent in his support of the project.
However, three weeks after New Izvestia published Yevtushenko’s letter, Putin went on national television and declared that the pipeline would not be routed through the Baikal Basin. I like to believe that Lake Baikal may well have been saved from this threat by the power of poetry.
Baikal’s future remains uncertain. The Baikalsk pulp plant continues to pollute. Nerpa continue to die, likely from pollution and certainly from hunting. The oil pipeline, at least, is no longer a major threat.
Many parts of Lake Baikal remain pristine. More than three-quarters of the shoreline and its adjacent forests and mountains benefits from some form of protective classification. There are three large nature reserves and two large national parks with several smaller reserves scattered among them. Overall, these protected lands total more than 4.8 million acres around the lake, an area slightly smaller than the state of Massachusetts.
“Beauty will save the world,” the immortal Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky once wrote. But today Yevtushenko counters, “Who will save beauty?”