amphipods

Cyberian Dispatch 13: Can Peace Trails and Strawberries Save the Amphipods?

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

The expedition to collect amphipods at Bolshie Koty was led by Ksenia Vereshchagina and Anton Gurkov, scientists from the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University.

What do peace trails, a strawberry festival and the future of Lake Baikal’s amphipods have in common? More than we thought, it turns out.

Several days ago, we embedded with scientists from the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University on a one-day expedition to Bolshie Koty, where the Institute has a lab and monitoring station. The main goal of the trip was to capture much-needed amphipods for the Institute’s critical research on the health of the Lake.

In late March, the ice on Baikal was still thick and strong in most places, but driving a car in locations that aren’t regularly monitored is no longer guaranteed to be safe. So, after the one-hour marshrutka ride to Listvyanka, we hopped into one of the many hovercrafts now operating on the Lake. These crafts move easily between ice and water, offering safety that Uaziks (the Russian military vehicle favored on Baikal’s ice) simply can’t offer at this time of year.

A half hour of twisty-turny skimming over the surface later, we arrived in Bolshie Koty, which is accessible only by boat during the summer and ice during the winter. We were picked up at the shores and chauffeured deep into a nearby canyon, along a mountain stream tucked under a rapidly melting ice blanket. Here the scientists had earlier carved a deep rectangular hole in the meter-thick ice, revealing the rushing waters below. This stream is one of more than 330 that feed Baikal, but it is not the pure, virginal water that the scientists coveted. Instead, they were on a mission to find the tiny amphipod (crustacean) named “Gammarus lacustris” hiding below. G. lacustris is not native to Baikal, and experts fear that, as temperatures warm, G. lacustris may move from the rivers, ponds, and wetlands surrounding the Lake directly into its shallow waters, crowding out precious endemic organisms and causing dangerous shifts in its ecosystem.

First, a spear wielded by a young biologist shattered the delicate coating of ice that had formed since their most recent visit. Down went a net, capturing a generous helping of riverbed muck. The muck was deposited on the nearby ice, and several scientists knelt over it, spreading it and poking it with yellow plastic spoons. Several minutes later, a cry went up. A tiny amphipod was found and ceremoniously delivered to a ceramic bowl. Then, several pairs who were locked together in preparation for mating. The scientists found that perplexing since mating usually occurs in May. The process continued, with more and more goo lifted to the surface and meticulously inspected. When 20 amphipods were identified, they were cleaned, wrapped in labeled packets, and lowered into a cylindrical sample case filled with liquid nitrogen designed to keep them alive on their trip to downtown Irkutsk.

After a potluck lunch, we all rushed back to the Lake, this time to gather samples of the amphipods that inhabit the coastal zone. The scientists had arranged with a diver to plunge under the ice and scoop samples of amphipods from the bottom of the Lake. His formidable white mane and moustache revealed him to be in his sixties. Despite the sub-freezing temperatures, he gamely donned aging gear that left part of his face uncovered and disappeared with a sudden splatter unseen below the ice.

A half hour later, he emerged in an explosion of bubbles, bearing a cornucopia of wriggling Lake life. Dozens of organisms were immediately identifiable, from tiny darting crustaceans no bigger than a fingertip, to large, bright orange amphipods with lengthy tentacles and menacing armaments that stretch more than 4 inches long. These were also meticulously sorted, cleaned, labeled and deposited into the sample case in a process that took several chilly dives and multiple hours.

In a flash, the scientists were on the move again, thanking their diving companions, packing equipment and beginning their journey back to Irkutsk, where the amphipods will inform critical research about the impact of temperature changes on aquatic life. Research at Irkutsk State University confirms that most amphipods evolved to live at a specific depth and within a specific temperature range. The Central Siberian Plateau is one of the three areas experiencing the most rapid climate change, and summer surface water temperatures on Lake Baikal have increased by over 2 degrees Celsius over the past 60 years. As temperatures continue to rise, amphipods will be forced to migrate to unfamiliar depths. The result will be competition with other species, loss of population, and disruption of the entire food cycle.

Two days later, we were up early again and on the road to Baikalsk, a city that is best known as the site of a notorious paper mill that was the biggest industrial polluter of the Lake. The paper mill shut down in 2013, more for economic reasons than as a result of ongoing protests. Environmentalists were thankful when it shuttered, but its closure did not end the threat. More than 6 million tons of toxic sludge are stored in unsealed tanks that continue to leach into the groundwater, and they could be propelled directly into the Lake in the event of a mudslide or an earthquake.

The plant’s closure also created an economic crisis, since most residents relied on the mill for their livelihood. Importantly, environmentalists didn’t forget about these families. They established training programs and incentive grants for former workers to reinvent the economy based on sustainable ecotourism. For example, a program created by Elena Tvorogova challenged local residents to devise plans for profitable businesses that leave the Siberian taiga and Lake Baikal pristine and untouched. The School for Environmental Entrepreneurship has already held 14 session, with more than 600 participants, and it has led to the creation of 28 new startups and assistance for 22 ongoing businesses. Successful -- and sustainable -- new businesses include cycling services, yoga, teas from local herbs, handmade chocolates, wood ornaments derived from logging waste, and oils and butters from local plants.  

But the new economy in Baikalsk is wider than these innovative products and services. On the slopes overlooking the Lake, a sprawling resort has opened for skiing and snowboarding. And the city has initiated a well-known festival that celebrates the uniquely delicious strawberries that grow in the Baikalsk area. While many were skeptical it would succeed, the festival now draws significant numbers of hungry tourists each Spring.

And idealistic activists like Evgeny Rakityansky are busy building new tourist trails and bridges in the region with the help of Russian and international volunteers. Rakityansky speaks with glowing pride of the increased safety and improved respect for nature that new trails have created in nearby Sludyanka and Kultuk. But he is most animated when he describes his vision for overcoming differences between nations through shared, loving work in the taiga. His summer camps for trail construction have already drawn participants from more than 10 foreign nations including the United States. With two trails already close to completion, he is now planning a trail in Baikalsk, and he is initiating a reality show on YouTube that will unlock the “inner spiritual code” of the landscape.

Throughout the Baikal region, environmentalists have a vision of creating a future of ecotourism that brings more visitors to support local residents and minimizes their ecological impact. But an economy that goes beyond slogans to build genuine ecotourism is difficult to forge. One activist, Roman Mikhailov, defines authentic ecotourism as a low-impact form of tourism in which participants enter wild nature, leave no trace, learn from local people, and provide concrete benefits for the local community. However, the number of visitors is expanding much more rapidly than strategies for minimizing their impact. As many as two million visitors arrive at Baikal each year, and the New York Times named Olkhon Island to its list of the 52 most important places to visit in 2019. Tourists arrive in a region where most businesses haven’t ever heard about ecotourism, let alone implemented its principles.

Baikalsk, with its many initiatives around sustainable development, is in the forefront of efforts to jump-start ecotourism in the local economy. Elsewhere, in places as far-flung as Listvyanka, Buguldeyka, Bolshoe Goloustnoe, and other locations around the Lake, a new style of guest house offers home stays or lodgings for only a few tourists at a time, a welcome alternative to the large hotels that have proliferated in recent years.

These promising initiatives represent real progress. But to implement full-fledged ecotourism, attractions around the Lake need to do even more. Research shows that waste leaching from guest houses and homes is the main source of nutrients that create widespread blooms of algae around the Lake and choke endemic coastal organisms. It’s essential for tourist enterprises -- and the government -- to embrace rapid advances in sewage treatment, septic systems, composting toilets, and strict limits on discharges into the Lake. It will also be important to offer tourists some form of an ecological rating system, so they know which claims about ecotourism match actual practices.

Right now, peace trails and strawberries are leading the way toward a more sustainable future, but these valuable initiatives can’t keep pace with the increased burden on the Lake. If we hope to save Baikal’s precious amphipods -- and its singular ecosystem -- we must wriggle free of our current thinking and make a rapid leap forward on eco-tourism.

Baikalsk, the site of a shuttered paper mill that once was the largest source of industrial pollution in Lake Baikal, is trying to reinvent itself as a center of sustainable development and ecotourism. Environmentalists are in the forefront of efforts to train a new generation of socially conscious entrepreneurs.



Cyberian Dispatch 10: Baikal Speaks in Music

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac


The oldest, deepest and largest lake by volume cannot be fathomed easily, but one way to plumb its remote depths is to listen. And if you listen to Baikal, it quickly becomes obvious that the Lake is speaking. It is not speaking in words. Instead, the Lake expresses itself in music.

We have written before about its sloshing waters, its merciless winds, its frolicsome crows, and other inimitable Baikal sounds. But the most formidable -- and also terrifying -- sound of Baikal is the sound of its ice cracking.

It starts as a sort of science fiction-y pinging, a bit like the sounds you associate with old movies about submarines. These pings and bwowops vibrate and stretch across vast expanses, often followed by a sharp crack or two or more. Then, if you are lucky (or unlucky, if you are as fearful as us), you may hear tremendous thunder as the ice actually sunders apart somewhere nearby.

The first time we heard a large crack while walking on Baikal’s ice, it registered in our brains as an earthquake (small ones are not uncommon here), and we leapt to our feet and ran immediately toward the distant shore (as fast as one can on a spectacularly slick surface). Then we noticed the locals, who went on skating and cavorting on the ice without pause. And we stayed for more of Baikal’s pinging, gurgling and cracking -- its unsurpassable music.

Music is unquestionably among the most treasured arts in Russia. Since the moment we arrived, we have been meeting musicians, sound artists, and people who simply love to sing or dance or play. To them, Baikal is always calling, as an inspiration and a unique location to summon their artistic best. As one of them recently put it, “Baikal is a mystery, and music is a way to understand it.”

At every holiday or gathering, Russians with beaming smiles will inevitably sing favorite songs that they pass on from generation to generation. Thus we found ourselves on Olkhon Island, listening to the songs of a ceremony called “maslenitsa” that welcomes Spring. The celebrants danced energetically in a circle around a bonfire built directly on the ice, singing for a thaw and new life in the coming season.

Two days later, all ages were represented at a maslenitsa celebration at the open air architectural museum at Taltsi, between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

A small number of musicians, like Evgeny Masloboev, literally play Baikal’s ice and water. In several recent concerts in Listvyanaka, he and his fellow Irkutsk-based musicians played instruments crafted from Baikal’s ice, and dipped other instruments into Baikal’s water to create fresh sounds. An exceptionally talented and innovative artist who views every single sound in the world as potential music, Evgeny knows from experience that Baikal’s ice and water have a unique sound that can’t be found anyplace else.

Others run with Baikal’s inspirations in many different directions. At the Blue Ice Festival on Olkhon Island, a French acapella group called Soli Tutti interpreted a traditional Buryat song and the local band Etno Beat created cosmopolitan rhythms. Moscow-based composer Marina Shmotova debuted an entire contemporary work based on the story of the Baikal icebreaker Angara that played an outsized role in local history and is still on display in Irkutsk. The Moscow-based artist Olessia Rostovskaya made church bells resonate across the Island in the morning, and that same evening debuted a nine-part contemporary classical composition based in part on recorded sounds of Baikal’s ice. Among many other talents, she is an expert on the theremin, an instrument invented in Russia that is played without touch, instead relying on manipulation of the electromagnetic field surrounding its antennas.

The Festival’s organizer, Natalya Bencharova, also hosted a discussion about the creation of a Baikal sound bank that will allow visitors near and far to access the sounds of the Lake. It is quite telling that she proposes a sound bank instead of a trove of videos or photographs. The sounds of the Lake are powerful and meaningful to locals...and to visitors. One of the first contributors to the sound bank is French sound artist Andre Fevre, who recently spent time camping on the ice around Olkhon Island in order to best capture the sounds of the ice talking. His efforts suggest the Lake is most vocal in mid-morning and late at night, when undergoing significant temperature changes.

As photographers and video artists, we are not immune to the call of Baikal’s sounds. We came to Siberia with a strong focus on the visual, but we immediately found our lensed devices limiting. There is no way to properly convey the enormity of Baikal, its constantly changing textures and moods, and its eternal inscrutability, with cameras alone. As a result, our project has moved emphatically in the direction of including sound and music.

From early on, we gathered local sounds to share with Baltimore-based composer and musician Maria Shesiuk, an extremely sensitive and versatile artist. Although she has never been to Siberia and we have never met her in person, she nonetheless uses her magical powers to conjure an authentic feel of Baikal in her original compositions that have debuted in this space. If you have not already, please listen to her songs titled Fog and A Walk Through Sleeping Land.

We also found that the data points in key scientific studies about the Lake’s ecological health can be plotted as musical notes, and we started to create compositions that directly reflect data on temperature changes and the impact of those changes on Lake organisms, such as the amphipods (small crustaceans) that are critical to the Lake’s cleanliness and its complex food chain. Although these electronic compositions are somewhat mechanical, we think of them as a starting point and as an innovative way to convey important scientific findings about the Lake. We are now in the process of sharing them with Maria and local musicians to see if they can help us interpret them.

For example, the following work in progress draws directly on findings from compelling new studies by scientists at the Biological Institute at Irkutsk State University (ISU), led by Director Maxim Timofeyev. In the composition, a “shimmering flute” represents data about temperature at four different depths in Baikal in Summer 2016 (Physiological and Biochemical Markers of Stress Response of Endemic Amphipods from Lake Baikal: Current State and Perspectives).

Separately, Russian scientists gathered evidence showing that the average summer surface water temperature at Lake Baikal has increased by 2 degrees Celsius since 1977, among the sharpest rises in the world. As temperatures continue to rise, scientists in Timofeyev’s department are researching what those changes will mean for amphipods. “Reflective strings,” “deep round synth bass,” and “grand piano” represent crustaceans that live at different depths in the Lake. The scientists’ work shows that amphipods unique to Baikal are comfortable at specific depths and temperatures, and may face danger or death if forced into different zones (Preference Ranges Correlate with Stable Signals of Universal Stress Markers in Lake Baikal Endemic and Holarctic Amphipods). In this composition, higher notes represent increased stress response among these exceptionally beautiful creatures, which are critical to the Lake’s future.  

You can see what some of Lake Baikal’s spectacular amphipods (also known as “gammarids”) look like here, in a video created by Russian diver Kiril Ivanov.

We also continue to gather local sounds. The unique voices of the people, whether Russian or Buryat or Evenk. Their own compositions, from folk songs to classical music to church bells to throat singing to popular music. But most of all, the sounds of the Lake itself...the ice that speaks so emphatically...the many voices of the Lake and the more than 300 rivers that feed it...the multitude of bird calls...the harsh and implacable winds...the murmuring sighs of moody spirits from high and low.

Baikal is a mystery that is endlessly intriguing and incomprehensible. We continue to capture its pixels, but when we wave our cameras at the Sacred Sea, sound waves back.