global warming

Cyberian Dispatch 20: A Swift Departure

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Pacific swifts that spend the summer in Siberia migrated in August to their winter home in Australia and Indonesia.

Pacific swifts that spend the summer in Siberia migrated in August to their winter home in Australia and Indonesia.

The swifts lived in the roof above our apartment. They often woke us in a cacophony of sound at about 6:00 a.m. They swooped and cavorted and dive-bombed in the treetops just outside our windows. But the Siberian summer is warm, exquisite, and brief, like a sun-ripened fruit. And its time had already passed. As temperatures also swooped lower, we woke to find that the birds had vanished...already traveling an exceptional distance to winter in Australia or Indonesia. And it was time for us to take flight also, leaving behind a very unexpected and welcoming homeland in the Far East (see Cyberian Dispatch 19). 

As we left, the complications of climate change were at play around the globe. Unprecedented wildfires in Brazil and the Arctic captured headlines around the world and were a topic among heads of state. A major hurricane, rated among the most powerful in the North Atlantic of all time, decimated part of the Bahamas and raked the coastal United States and Canada. Alaska’s sea ice melted completely for the first time in history. Iceland’s Prime Minister officiated at a memorial for a lost glacier.

Unfortunately, Siberia and Lake Baikal are in the vanguard of these changes, with temperatures increasing two times faster than other parts of the globe. In our final weeks, multiple challenges punctuated the news, emphasizing Siberia’s leading role in climate change. Wildfires in Siberia, accelerated by high temperatures and extremely dry conditions, consumed an area larger than the nation of Belgium, sometimes sending thick blankets of smoke into Irkutsk and raising air quality alerts to the urgent level. Also, areas north of Irkutsk -- especially Tulun -- suffered severe floods in which dozens lost their lives, and Greenpeace Russia attributed the catastrophe to climate change. Scientists once again reported that Baikal’s precious small organisms are vulnerable to rising temperatures and will suffer, disrupting the Lake’s entire ecosystem, if water temperatures continue to rise.

Our parting weeks were filled with nostalgia for the mystery, power and enormity of Baikal, not just as a body of water, but as a living being, a space where spirits rule, a territory where the power of the natural world pervades all the human senses. We said goodbyes to the Angara River, Baikal’s only outlet and the site of exquisite encounters with winter “tuman” or fog (see Cyberian Dispatch 9). We traveled again to Olkhon Island, witnessed a very special ritual in which more than 40 shamans prayed for rain to extinguish wildfires, and paused to reflect in one of Baikal’s most sacred sites (see Cyberian Dispatch 3). 

If the spirits of Baikal had the only say, all would be well. Unfortunately, greed, folly, and indifference also hold sway. Our year in Siberia has given us ample understanding of the main threats facing the world’s most important lake: climate change and various forms of pollution that have already damaged shallow areas and now threaten the entire Lake. But the final weeks of our stay also revealed the extent of new, emerging hazards that threaten an exponential increase in harm. These new concerns have unique attributes that reinforce each other and have the potential to rapidly accelerate warming in a “feedback effect.” For example:

  • Melting Permafrost: Temperatures in Siberia are increasing twice as rapidly than other parts of the world. As a result, vast territories of previously frozen permafrost are melting, discharging enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and methane -- enough to result in “catastrophic” warming.

  • Spreading Forest Fires: According to prominent scientists, the growing number and intensity of forest fires is causing “dramatic loss of forested area,” further accelerating climate change. 

  • Excessive Logging: Widespread legal and illegal logging is also contributing to rapid deforestation that accelerates warming; and

  • Deteriorating Rivers: As temperatures increase, evaporation intensifies and the flow of the Lake’s tributaries is reduced. Dwindling water levels reduce pressure at the Lake’s bottom, releasing additional methane and harming sensitive species. 

Many of our most memorable moments at Baikal involved sound or music (see Cyberian Dispatch 10). Evgeny Masloboev, an Irkutsk-based experimental composer and musician, can elicit music out of almost anything, including coat hangars, plastic bags, or the leaves of plants. He favors improvisation, and before we left, he very memorably asked us to pull out our phones, hold them near each other, and create music from...a feedback effect. 

Scientists know that these emerging threats can quickly approach a tipping point that accelerates environmental degradation much more quickly than current climate modeling anticipates. Artists like Evgeny Masloboev sense it and intuitively find a way to express it. The natural landscape already signals distress: people choke on smoke from mega-fires and die when their homes are inundated by flash floods. But in Russia and around the world, many people are not fully aware of how serious the problem is, and policymakers are in denial, immobilized or unsure of how to act on a scale large enough to be consequential. 

The swifts departed suddenly one August day, darting into the sky because they knew the environment will soon not be hospitable. Following a small visa snafu, we also took flight to Central Europe on very short notice, uprooting ourselves from our Far Eastern homeland and finding a roost near the Danube River, another threatened body of water. 

Time is precious now. How can we speed the pace of change on ending the use of fossil fuels and embracing clean energy? How can we embrace the use of alternative energy sources -- ones that are in ample supply in Siberia and many other places around the globe? How can we turn the corner on simple changes like ending the use of phosphates in detergents or stopping the endless stream of bottles that clog our waterways? 

Our year long Fulbright experience proves that we can build alliances across cultures and among diverse stakeholders who share common values and goals. It was an exceptionally meaningful, moving and beautiful experience, and we are forever grateful to our warm, welcoming, and kind Russian hosts, who selflessly ensured the project’s success. 

But can those of good faith and good mind work together quickly enough to safeguard Baikal? Can we chart a new course as swiftly as the swifts?

 







How is Lake Baikal Threatened?

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Especially in its depths, Lake Baikal is still relatively clean. But extensive research by Russian and international scientists shows that it is severely challenged by two pressing threats: rapid climate change that is disrupting its complex ecosystem, and pollution from ever-expanding tourism and development. Also of concern are specific development or regulatory proposals that could accelerate damage to the Lake. While several recent threats have been successfully thwarted, new ones are always emerging, and it is unclear whether activists can stop them all. 

A Rapidly Changing Climate

Scientists have ample evidence that the Baikal region is one of the most affected by climate change in the world. One study demonstrates that summer surface water temperatures increased 2.0 degrees Celsius between 1977 and 2003 (Izmesteva et. al. 2016). There is also strong evidence that winter ice cover has decreased in duration and thickness compared with a century ago (Shimaraev et. al. 2002). 

Changes in the transparency and yearly duration of ice as a result of warming have the potential to affect Baikal’s entire food chain. A recent study reveals that small native diatoms (or single-celled algae) that are critical to the food chain are already declining in the southern basin of the Lake (Roberts, et. al., 2018). These organisms provide much of the food for the tiny copepod, Epischura baikalensis, that filters Baikal’s water. Moreover, there is considerable data showing that Baikal’s magnificent amphipods (small crustaceans that are a food source for fish species) are susceptible to severe stress in warming conditions (Axenov-Gribanov et. al., 2016). At the top of the food chain, changes in the ice cover have the potential to harm the world’s only true freshwater seal by negatively impacting fertility and subjecting the young to predators. Moreover, changes in wind speed and direction have the potential to alter the process by which the Lake’s deep waters receive oxygen, with consequences for the entire ecosystem (Moore et. al., 2009).

Growing Levels of Pollution

Pollution is Baikal’s other great threat, creating a range of problems, especially in populated areas and those that draw the most tourists. A variety of pollution sources are already creating  negative impacts on sponges, snails, amphipods, and other Lake creatures.

Nutrient inputs are contributing to massive blooms of non-native algae in the coastal areas of the Lake. These blooms choke out endemic species and pose a risk to humans, wildlife, and livestock. There is also a growing epidemic of sickness and death of endemic Baikal sponges and a mass mortality of snails in some areas of the Lake. (Timoshkin et. al., 2016). 

Studies show that these problems result primarily from sewage and detergent waste that flows into the Lake from hotels, houses, and tourist destinations. Wastewater treatment in populated areas around the Lake is either lacking or outdated. Moreover, many small homes and businesses rely on unlined pits rather than lined septic tanks, allowing human waste to leach through the soil into the Lake. (Timoshkin et. al., 2018).

A variety of chemical pollutants are also entering the lake, including pesticides (Tsydenova, et. al. 2003) and PCBs (Mamontov, et. al., 2000). Some reach Baikal by air from nearby industrial facilities, but there are also significant discharges of petrochemicals from boats, and dangerous pollutants entered the water when rail cars were washed in Severobaikalsk. 

There are inadequate means of disposing of garbage in the Lake Baikal area, and accumulating solid waste is a growing problem in areas around the Lake. Also, tourists are responsible for erosion, damage to trails and campsites, and negative impacts on local flora and fauna. Some of this damage results from inappropriate transportation such as ATVs, which have been banned in some parks. 

Synergy Between Climate Change and Pollution

An unfortunate synergy between climate change and other anthropogenic changes poses special challenges the Lake’s future. For example, scientists believe that melting permafrost in the Baikal watershed is a possible source of increased phosphorus and nitrogen in Lake Baikal, contributing to algal blooms. Increased melting of permafrost from climate change may also increase the release of dangerous industrial pollutants such as PCBs into the Lake (Moore et. al., 2009). 

Forest fires have also increased in numbers and intensity in the areas surrounding the Lake. Most fires are caused by careless conduct or arson, but they are worsened by a warmer climate. The ash and soot from these fires is likely contributing to blooms of algae in the Lake. In general, a warming climate is likely to exacerbate threats from increased tourism and development, erosion, and other factors. 

Damaging Projects and Proposals

Environmentalists have successfully blocked some of the most damaging proposals to exploit Baikal or pollute its waters. In 2008, environmentalists convinced President Putin to re-route an oil pipeline originally planned to come dangerously close to Baikal’s shores. In 2013, one of the most dangerous polluters, the Baikalsk Paper Mill, closed its doors forever, but left behind huge pools of dangerous sludge that are leaking into the groundwater and in serious danger from flooding or earthquake.

A Chinese-owned water bottling plant was recently built on the southern shore of the Lake in Kultuk, in an important wetlands for migratory birds. After protests across the Baikal region and Russia, the plant was blocked from opening because its environmental impact had not been properly studied. 

Mongolia has proposed to build up to 8 hydroelectric dams on the Selenga River and its tributaries, the source of 50 percent of Lake Baikal’s surface water. Fortunately, these plans are currently on hold in light of concerns expressed by the World Bank and UNESCO, but Mongolia is intent on achieving more energy independence. There are also proposals to divert water from Baikal to China by way of a massive pipeline. If approved, these projects would lower water levels in the Lake, damage precious flora and fauna, and block migration routes. 

But the most important threats facing Baikal at the moment are regulatory ones. In 2018, the water protection zone for Lake Baikal was substantially reduced, allowing considerably more development to occur in protected areas. Now, under the guise of “modernizing” the rules about discharges into the Lake, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is proposing that allowable releases of dangerous pollutants into the Lake can be increased by as much as 32 times the prior limits. Scientists at the local Limnological Institute and their allies have weighed in with ample evidence that the change would be catastrophic, but no final decision has been made. 

Further, some locals bitterly complain that rules about building new structures and boundaries of protected zones are unclear or conflict at different levels of government, so their efforts to create businesses or homes that benefit their families are endlessly blocked or mired in confusion. Rules to protect the Lake must be consistent, strong and fair.  

Mobilization Needed to Save Baikal

The combined threats of climate change, pollution, and proposals for harmful developments and regulatory changes not only threaten the health of the lake, but also represent serious risks to future economic activity and human health. A major mobilization is needed to save Lake Baikal, including urgent action by scientists, NGOs, government, and citizens. Here are some action steps that make eminent sense right now:

  • Regressive regulatory changes must be blocked and instead replaced with clear prohibitions against damaging discharges into the Lake. Also, policies regarding building in sensitive areas must be clarified so that they can be easily understood and implemented. 

  • Trash collection in the Baikal region must be dramatically improved, and major education campaigns should be initiated to reduce litter in coastal zones.

  • Strong steps should be taken to enhance eco-tourism opportunities, to provide support for businesses that adopt environmental principles, and to create standards that will help consumers validate their claims. A push toward eco-tourism should include expanded education about best practices for the use of the Lake and its surrounding trails and recreation areas.

  • The moratorium on dam building in Mongolia should be made permanent, preventing tragic harm to the Selenga River and Baikal.

  • Strong steps must be taken to prevent widespread illegal logging and forest fires, both of which are widespread. 

  • Action is required to prevent the worst effects of climate change by adopting worldwide policies to reduce carbon emissions and limit the rise in temperatures. Individuals can assist by limiting their energy use and pushing for rapid expansion of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind energy.

  • Additional study is urgently needed about anthropogenic changes in the Lake and the impact of climate change, including careful monitoring of coastal and deeper waters. It is essential that Russian and international researchers have ample resources to continue monitoring a wide variety of concerns. It is also urgent that scientific findings be communicated to policymakers and the public in a form that is easily understandable.

Right now we face critical tests of our commitment to preserve the world’s most important lake for future generations. It will be impossible to save Baikal overnight, but an alliance including scientists, environmentalists, artists, and concerned citizens can help make a real difference in safeguarding what Vladimir Rasputin called “the eternity and perfection” of the Sacred Sea. 




Cyberian Disapatch 18: Rituals by the Riverbanks

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

As the summer days grow longer and warmer, Siberians of all ages are drawn to the water -- to cool off, relax, and sometimes, perform ancient rituals. And so we found ourselves repeatedly on the banks of the Irkut River, encountering age-old rituals with decidedly contemporary implications.

Among the many peoples who emigrated or were exiled to Siberia, Poles and Belorussians are very prominent. We sadly missed the Polish celebration of Ivana Kupala Night, a pagan fertility celebration associated with the summer solstice. But we were relieved to be invited to the Belorussian version, reputed to be more mysterious and even shocking.

When we arrived along the banks of the river in the suburbs of Irkutsk, women of all ages were already gathering wildflowers and making them into garlands. A huge pile of wood promised a massive bonfire, and elaborate picnics on blankets and in makeshift tents made it eminently clear that many participants would stay until dawn, despite the promised heavy rainfall.

As darkness fell, the rituals got underway. Women crowned with elaborate wreaths of wildflowers formed a massive circle from which men were excluded. As the bonfire was lit, their faces flushed with color, and riotous dancing ensued. Next came games in which men chased women and tried to capture them. As the night wore on, drizzle escalated into rain and rain intensified into a downpour that soaked completely through clothes and shoes. The bonfire leapt ever higher, scattering sparks in all directions, and everyone bathed in the water, light and heat. 

Traditionally, it is a night for couples to test their bravery and faith to each other by leaping over the roaring fire. It is a time for women to float their wreaths on the river, and for men to catch them, winning their affections. It is also a time when women enter the forest, followed by men, to seek flowering ferns -- and the possibility of a new relationship. (If a flowering fern is found, it is a truly magical event, since ferns are not flowering plants.) In short, Ivana Kupala is an ancient fertility rite -- connected closely to nature and the seasons. And as our Siberian Belorussians proved, it still resonates very strongly today.

There are two Russian language films we can recommend that touch on Ivana Kupala. For a psychedelic, Soviet-era take on this holiday, try Vechir na Ivana Kupala, created in 1968 by Ukrainian director Yuri Ilyenko. He based his film on a classic story by Nikolai Gogol (which may have also inspired Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”). 

For more of a sense of what Ivana Kupala may have historically meant, there is a scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, in which the painter monk Rublev stumbles upon this pagan ritual, complete with furtive nighttime coupling, in the year 1408. The scene suggests the manner in which pagan worshippers resisted Christianity for generations after it was imposed on Slavic lands from the 8th to the 13th century. For example, some icons of the Virgin Mary were disguised representations of “Damp Mother Earth,” a pagan deity adorned with distinctive six-petaled roses characteristic of pre-Christian faiths. Slavic folk religions, particularly as a synthesis of Russian Orthodox and pagan beliefs, persist to this day, and there is a revival of Slavic native faiths underway in Russia.

Only a few days later, we found ourselves at the spot where the Irkut empties into the mighty Angara -- a sacred spot for Buryats that is used by local shamans to perform their rituals. More than 15 shamans gathered for a very important task. Severe flooding had occurred in the northern part of Irkutsk Oblast, killing approximately 25 people and displacing thousands. The shamans gathered with the purpose of asking the gods to stop any more flooding and to safeguard local people from the rising waters.

During Ivana Kupala, faces flashed in the night with bright colors, vividly bringing the ritual to life. Here the shamans donned traditional vestments, also in dramatic colors, that help them enter into a trance state in which they can communicate directly with the gods, intervening on behalf of local residents. The shamans prepared offerings of tea, milk, vodka, cookies, and the meat of a sacrificial sheep. They lit special herbs and infused the area with their scent. Arrayed in a long line, they beat on ceremonial drums and chanted special prayers. And one by one, assisted by helpers, they entered into trances, hopping up and down and speaking in voices.  

The rituals of Ivana Kupala and those of the Buryat shamans are both closely linked to nature, to the seasons, to the natural rhythms of life. They also rely heavily on the forces of fire and water. 

When nature is in balance, fire and water help create fertility. The rain feeds wildflowers, couples leap over bonfires to underscore their bonds, and women’s garlands float in the current. But when nature is not in balance, the results are not the same. Right now, in northern Siberia (and other Arctic regions such as Greenland and Alaska), massive wildfires are raging unimpeded across the landscape, burning huge forests to the ground. In Southern Siberia, endless rainfall -- likely accentuated by excessive logging -- is posing a mortal threat, collapsing roads and bridges, and dumping raw sewage directly into Lake Baikal.

The traditional ecological knowledge of long-ago traditions, Slavic and Buryat, teach us to find peace with nature, feel its rhythms, and apply them to our lives. Buryat traditions in particular urge us to take only what is needed and to respect all living things around us as sacred and precious to future generations. 

The banks of the Irkut are a fine place for the “good humor mischiefs” of Ivana Kupala. But they are also a welcome spot to relearn the lessons of traditional culture and commit ourselves to basic principles that were never questioned in the past: to live in harmony with Damp Mother Earth and to preserve her fertile treasures for our children.

Irkut_Ceremony_29.jpg

Cyberian Dispatch 17: Warming Northern Baikal

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

At the far north of Lake Baikal, where few venture, an alliance of small tourism businesses created a slogan designed to lure more visitors: “Warm Northern Baikal.” It was a small stroke of genius, since the north is, at least in terms of temperature, noticeably colder than the south. While the ice melted long ago in the south, it’s still visible now at the northern tip of the Lake. And people are fond of joking, “We have two months of cold, and 10 months of real cold.”

The slogan works on several levels. First, it’s meant to convey that you will be welcomed warmly by the local populace, who bring a homey and personal approach to their dealings with visitors that’s different from what you will encounter in bigger cities. Second, the area is home to numerous hot springs that create oases of comfort, even when it’s -50 Celsius outside. And in July and August, the shallow edges of the Lake actually heat up, creating ideal conditions for swimming and kayaking.

But the inaction of the world to the reality of climate change is lending the slogan yet another, unintended meaning: despite its isolation and low population, northern Baikal has indisputable environmental problems associated with warming temperatures and pollution.

On the one hand, the region is eager to take the lead on turning Warm Northern Baikal into an exemplar of environmental protection, in part because they hope that will help draw more tourism. In Severobaikalsk, the largest northern city with a population of 25,000, activists hope that an emphasis on ecology will help the region stand out as a destination. They are cleaning up garbage and creating disposal stations for used plastic and batteries. The young mayor is fighting the abundant growth of spirogyra by seeking an end to the use of phosphates in detergents, a key factor in its spread in recent years.

Some innovative local residents also saved 17 hectares of land and prevented the mass development of houses by creating large plots for a small number of eco-friendly dwellings, many of which use composting toilets, water purification, solar energy, and recycled materials for insulation. The project was difficult to get approved, but the instigators hope their model will inspire others to join a new movement toward eco-friendly living.

And environmental activist Yevgeny Mariasov is leading an effort to expand the Great Baikal Trail, a network of paths that will eventually allow hikers to circumnavigate the entire Lake. The next step is creating a new, 24 kilometer section that will connect existing trails north and south of the city. His dream, along with other locals, is that the GBT will expand low-impact eco-tourism while safeguarding the Lake. The leadership of Buryatia approves of the plan and may devote funding.

At a city meeting on this subject, there were no dissenters, and work will begin this summer on the new section of the trail. But some residents complained that critical environmental topics are being overlooked. There is considerable new construction in Severobaikalsk, all connected to the city’s aging and inadequate wastewater treatment system, meaning much of the waste ends up in the Lake, contributing to the spirogyra outbreaks. One of the chief builders of Severobaikalsk vocally insisted that this is the most significant environmental threat, but it is receiving scant attention. And there was no mention of the role of the BAM, or the Baikal-Amursky Magistral Railway, in polluting the River Tyya, which flows directly into Baikal. A taxi driver told us that years ago, “only a lazy man couldn’t pull a fish out of the Tyya.” But now, he noted wistfully, there are no fish at all.

And the owner of a local guest house insisted he doesn’t need to see monitoring results to know that the water is warmer than before, contributing to the spread of spirogyra, which in recent years turned lush, sandy beaches (“We have your Thailand,” one local billboard reads) into carpets of odiferous, decaying sludge. Although scientists have warned that removal of the algae is important, there is not always enough money to do that, and it may take as much as 40 years for affected areas to recover.

Further north, in the small village of Nizhneangarsk, the local Evenk population also has warnings for the future of Baikal. Like Buryats, the native Evenk people lived nomadic lives of hunting and reindeer herding in extremely close concert with the natural world. But now, of 330 Evenks in the town, only 10 speak the native language. And with the language, the culture of respect for the natural world is also threatened. A small center for the preservation of Evenk culture struggles to teach the language to a new generation of young people, but it is a quixotic effort.

Artist Valery Kondakov, a longtime resident of Nizhneangarsk, whose father was Evenk, enumerates a long list of environmental problems facing the region: new construction of three-story apartment buildings that drain untreated wastewater into the Lake; reduced and diseased populations of omul fish in Baikal; and more frequent forest fires. But he saves his harshest words for the “barbaric cutting of trees only 100 meters from the Lake.” All around Baikal, trees are falling at an alarming rate, legally and illegally, with incalculable costs to the ecosystem. “This all happens fundamentally because of people’s indifference,” he laments.

Kondakov’s art responds to these modern problems through the lens of long-ago history. Hieroglyphs along the northern coast of Baikal prove that this region has been inhabited since at least the Stone Age, and Evenks have conducted holy rituals along its shores, on hills and in caves, for countless generations. Evoking the spirits of his ancestors, Kondakov carved a sculpture from a piece of a fallen “holy tree,” or one that was used as a sacred burial place for deceased Evenks in times gone by. He doesn’t usually paint or sculpt Baikal itself, since he’s more interested in the people who have lived and died by its shores. But one intricate sculpture, adorned with multiple time pieces, is meant to convey Baikal’s situation now, after generation upon generation of environmental equilibrium. In this piece, clocks are ticking for the Lake’s future...or worse still, have they stopped?

“Evenks have profound feelings for everything alive,” Kondakov notes. Everything has its own spirit, and everything is animate, including the fragment of a holy tree that has been transformed into an art object. As we stand with him, in the tiny village where few understand the import of his work, we recognize that the wood is not only alive, but it is speaking to us. Long-ago ancestors are speaking to us through the natural world, and the message is not comforting.

We end our trip in the far north village of Dzelinda, the location of one of the region’s hot springs. The natural spring is risky to patronize because of the prevalence of disease-carrying ticks and hungry bears, so we visit the man-made pools for a long and relaxing soak. There are three basins to choose from...lukewarm, warm, and scalding hot.

A man who drove more than 2000 kilometers from Novosibirsk bravely enters the hottest pool. He emerges smiling, but with beet red legs that were burnt by the intense heat. Then he urges his son, about 7 years old, to go in also. We cringe, hoping the small boy won’t be injured, but the father insists, “We didn’t drive all this way to avoid the hot water!”

We are reminded of the man, in the city meeting in Severobaikalsk, who insisted on enlisting young people in a patriotic effort to declare the city the cleanest around all of Baikal. It was a noble idea, but we looked around and noticed that very few young people were in attendance. We know that some, like Yevgeny Mariosov’s son Simon, have returned to the city to create innovative and eco-friendly businesses, like Simon’s coffeeshop, “Geography.” The future may indeed lie with this cadre of young people, willing to commit to the future of tiny, distant but environmentally critical locations around Baikal.

So far, Warm Northern Baikal has resisted construction of massive hotels and other outsized developments for large numbers of visitors, but it is said that the governor of this region is interested in allying with China to build a landing strip for jets, along with large hotels to accommodate a major new influx of tourists.

At the hot spring, the father pushed his son toward the scalding water, and the young boy looked at the father quizzically, as if to say, “Why would you want me to burn myself?” And he pulled away repeatedly, resisting his father’s entreaties.

In Warm Northern Baikal, environmental activists like Yevgeny Mariasov have pointed the region in the right direction, but the next generation will ultimately make the most important decisions.

At the Dzelinda hot spring, each pool represented a possible future. Who are the young people who will choose that future? And which pool will they choose?




Cyberian Dispatch 14: The Nature of Faith in Ulan-Ude

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

At a time of polarization and division around the world, the Republic of Buryatia stands out as a place where people of diverse backgrounds live in harmony. Ulan-Ude, the tranquil and welcoming capital nestled among a ring of mountains, is not only the leading center of Buddhism in Russia, but a haven for those practicing Shamanism, the Russian Orthodox faith, and for Old Believers, who maintain the ancient rituals of the Orthodox church before reforms were implemented centuries ago. And each of these faiths places a high value on the land, air, and water.

The first thing almost everyone learns about Ulan-Ude is that it’s the home of a monumental sculpture of Lenin’s head, towering above the city’s main square. But there’s another colossal figure that has more significance these days -- the largest Buddha in Russia, perched blissfully above the devotees at Rinpoche Datsan in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Worshippers attend daily services that are alive with drums and chanting and afterwards ask for the blessing of its aging Lama. They can also follow a kilometer-long “Walk of Life” that pays tribute to all the animals of the Buddhist zodiac. (Gabriela is a tiger, and Mark is a bull.) On the morning of our visit, a snowstorm with savage winds cut right through our overly optimistic outerwear and obscured the view of the mountains around us. But a single purple crocus reminded us that Siberia’s next season will arrive eventually.

Back in the center of the city, at the only women’s monastery for Buddhists in Russia, a grinning Lama emphasized the interconnected nature of everything, including the natural world, and the cause and effect nature of our actions. If we throw garbage at Lake Baikal, it will be harmed. In her view, a growing number of birth defects can be traced to the damage people are doing to the environment.

At the Ivolginsky Buddhist Monastery, about 40 kilometers outside of Ulan-Ude, the Rector of the Buddhist University, Dimbril Bagsha Dashibaldanov, also stressed the importance of reverence for all living things -- and traced ecological problems to the human ego. The emotions that arise in the body as a result of egoism, such as anger and dislike and jealousy, are the root causes of environmental degradation, and to the extent we can eliminate these feelings and focus more on other people, such as our neighbors, we can better safeguard the natural world.

When asked about the urgency of responding to critical issues like climate change, Dashibaldanov favored “raising awareness” over anything prescriptive, emphasizing that people need to work on changing themselves instead of being told what to do. Can people change quickly enough? It’s not clear. But he raised the possibility that we need a “фишка” (pronounced “fishka”) -- Russian slang for a transformational idea -- to help improve ecological conditions. He pointed out that it took only a few years for smartphones to conquer the world, and something similar for the environment has the potential to jump-start real progress.

After meeting with the Rector, we strolled the grounds of the Monastery, which was opened in 1945 as the spiritual center of Buddhism in the Soviet Union. Among the many ornate and exceptional buildings on the grounds, one can enter a shrine that contains the body of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Buryat monk who died and was buried in the lotus position in 1927. According to his own instructions, his body was exhumed 30 years later, and shocked adherents were amazed to see that it was entirely intact with no signs of decomposition. Worried about how the Soviet Union would react, they reburied the Lama, and exhumed him again in 2002, when his body was once again found to be extraordinarily well-preserved. But more than that, many of his followers claim that he is actually alive, in a transcendent state of meditation or nirvana. A jovial monk near the door insisted that Itigilov’s body is warm, that he sweats under his armpits and needs to have his clothes changed, and that his face shows fatigue after long rituals. Visitors were invited to ask the monk for assistance, but cautioned to remember others before thinking of ourselves. We were careful to include Lake Baikal in our prayers.

Many Buryats in Russia are Buddhists, many embrace the ancient practice of Shamanism, and still others practice both. But all Buryat traditions are extremely close to the natural world. Marina Danginova, a practicing female Shaman, explained that nature is alive in the Buryat tradition. For example, Baikal is a living organism, and in winter, it goes to sleep rather than freezing. Marina worries a lot about damaging changes in the Baikal region in recent years, including extensive fires, the strong push to create businesses along the Lake’s shores, and the fluctuating level of water in the Lake. “We will not remain silent,” she insisted. But her most important worry is that, as Buryats slowly lose their language, they also lose their connection to nature.  

The next day, Marina met us at our Airbnb to conduct a ritual in support of our project. She started by lighting ceremonial Siberian herbs and letting the smoke and the scent permeate the entire apartment. She passed vodka, milk, cookies and candies above the burning herbs. Then she spilled vodka and milk at the window as she chanted in the Buryat language, and mixed these ingredients in a bowl. A cup of black tea made its way into the concoction. The sequence was repeated several times, each time with an empty cup thrown over her shoulder. At the end of the ritual, we were asked to carry the bowl of vodka, milk and tea outside, walk around a tree, and sprinkle the contents at the base. Similar Buryat rituals can also be used to ask for what is needed in the natural world, such as the rain needed by farmers.

It’s not surprising that Buryats commune closely with nature. They are the “original ecologists” who insist on taking only what they need from around them. But we were taken aback when we learned that Metropolitan Sergey Popkov, the youthful leader of Old Believers in Siberia, is an unabashed environmentalist.

Old Believers resisted reforms that were instituted by the Eastern Orthodox Church in the mid-1600’s, adhering closely to the ancient liturgy and rituals. As a result, they lost their civil rights and were persecuted and even executed. Some fled Russia, and small pockets exist in many places around the world, including the United States. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Old Believers can freely open churches in Russia, such as the one where Metropolitan Popkov leads his parishioners.

In good English and with no hesitation, the Metropolitan recited a litany of negative environmental changes he has witnessed in recent years, including climate change, an increase in forest fires, reduced groundwater, shallow rivers and streams, diminished fish populations in the Selenge and Ude Rivers, thick smog in the city, expanding problems with garbage, and the spread of non-native species, among others. He acknowledged that many problems, such as the practice of setting fire to woods so that it is then legal to log the wood, stem from a lack of good jobs, so he favors policies that will provide people with more economic security. In his view, climate change is accelerating environmental degradation, in part by driving people to cities, where the link to nature is more tenuous. Much like the Buddhists, he suggested that individuals start by improving their own practices as an important first step. Luckily, humankind’s connection to nature and to God is essentially the same, so it’s possible to enhance both simultaneously.

Following the Buryat ritual in our apartment, we quickly learned that the spirits favored us. There were two auspicious signs. First, liquid spilled on the window traveled straight down. Second, the cup landed face up each time it was thrown. Not only did the spirits welcome us, they had been waiting for us.

Playfully, it seems. After the ceremony, important items disappeared four times, then reappeared in places that had already been searched. The exact meaning of this mischief remains unclear.

But if the spirits were waiting for us, we were also waiting for them. In Ulan-Ude, almost everything felt spot-on. The team of women from Buryat State University who hosted us were among the kindest and most accomplished people we’ve met in Russia. Their students, who welcomed us in their classrooms and helped us navigate the city, were exceptional guides with outstanding English skills. The Director of the Fulbright Program in Russia, Joel Ericson, arrived in Ulan-Ude complete with a can-do spirit and a concrete vision of how to expand Fulbright’s focus on Baikal and safeguard its future.

Most of all, representatives of every faith greeted us with open arms in successive meetings, embracing diversity and focusing on a better future -- a future in which the health and well-being of the people is never separate from the health and well-being of all living things. The spirits don’t care if you are Orthodox, an Old Believer, a Buddhist, a follower of Shamanic traditions, or an atheist. In Buryatia, it is the nature of faith to safeguard the Earth. The spirits only want us to do the right thing.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.



Cyberian Dispatch 12: A Note on Temperature

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

We made it through the Siberian winter.

It snowed today and it’s not exactly lovely yet outside. But with the vernal equinox upon us, we can look forward to temperatures that are much warmer than before.

We’ve resisted a post about how cold it is in Siberia, since that’s the biggest cliche about the Far East. But Siberia is cold -- even here in the South, not too far from the Mongolian border. And if you have any aspirations of visiting here, or another place that’s as frigid, we have some insights to offer.

The first thing that locals will tell you is that Siberians are not people who are used to the cold. Instead, they are people who know how to dress well. You don’t necessarily need the highest tech gear, or the most expensive. You need many thermal layers. You need heavy coats that cover as much of your legs as possible. Kidneys are a sensitive spot -- keep them as snuggly as possible. You need very warm boots and several layers of socks. The locals swear by “unti,” boots made from reindeer fur that are allegedly the warmest around. We couldn’t bear the thought of harming a reindeer, so we bought very expensive European boots that were still somewhat problematic on long hikes.

You need mittens -- they’re much warmer than gloves. Unless you need to operate a camera, in which case you are really in a quandary. Bare hands last only moments in serious “moroz” (literally, frost, but Russians use this word to denote temperatures of -20 Celsius or lower). Thin gloves allow some mobility but are little better than bare hands. Thick gloves remove most ability to reach camera controls, and mittens eliminate it completely. There’s no good solution, and often we found ourselves pulling off most hand coverings, shooting briefly, and then balling our aching hands inside our mittens to restore circulation and slowly ease the pain.

You need to cover your face during moroz. The first time Mark walked around in -25 Celsius without covering his face, a woman said, “You need to touch your nose.” He thought his nose was dripping. But that’s not what she meant. She could see, by its white color, that his nose was starting to get frostbite. Russians avoid this literally by putting their mittens or gloves on their nose to warm them. A better way is to cover your face with a scarf, a ski mask, or a balaclava. The problem is that the balaclava is soon moist and then frozen from your breath. This is how we got the icicles on our eyes that we featured in our popular holiday card.

Everything that is exposed during the worst cold will hurt, especially eyes. They may drip like a faucet, a way of expressing severe distress. But it is not only what is exposed that may suffer from the cold. Along with many locals, we experienced a form of “winter psoriasis,” or red, dry and peeling skin that results from the extreme temperatures, even in places that were covered. Our friend even developed hives on her face. While there’s some winter cream for babies you can spread on your suffering skin, it’s more of a placebo than anything else. True relief comes only from warmer weather.

The worst cold we experienced all winter was in December in Buguldeyka, a village near the Lake. Not only did temperatures drop to -40 Celsius at night, but a stiff wind was blowing the whole time we were there. During the day, the gale threatened to topple us from the hills right into the water, and a two to three hour hike proved to be the outside limit of what we could endure. At night, we huddled near a very toasty Russian pechka, or wood-burning stove, so we kept quite warm. But even a quick visit to the outhouse was an ordeal and forthrightly dangerous for sensitive skin. Beware.

We realize that, so far as Siberian winters go, we were spared the worst. There was very little snow compared to last year, when plows couldn’t keep up with it. And while we did experience serious moroz, temperatures were among the warmest in memory in February. This is consistent with the growing body of evidence suggesting that Siberia is warming much more rapidly than most places on the planet.

Lake Baikal is home to one of the longest running environmental monitoring programs in the world. A leading scientist, Mikhail Khozhov, began the program in 1945. He was first assisted by his daughter, Olga Khozhova, and then his granddaughter, Lyubov Izmest’eva. Now the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University maintains the program, routinely logging temperatures and other critical statistics.

These data show incontrovertibly that temperatures are changing over time. As far back as 2008, a major paper by Russian and international scientists, using the Khozhov’s data, concluded that water temperatures in Lake Baikal had increased 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1945, with corresponding changes in the Lake’s plant and animal life -- dramatic increases in chlorophyll and “cladocerans,” or miniscule crustaceans commonly called “water fleas.”

In 2009, scientists predicted that Baikal will become “warmer and wetter” by the end of the century, significantly affecting the amount of ice cover. In turn, the changes in ice cover will likely affect the entire ecosystem, from small diatoms (single-celled algae) that feed the Lake to the world’s only true freshwater seal, the nerpa. As we noted in our last post, nerpas rely on ice cover to safely raise their pups. And the entire food chain relies on ice -- and the transparency of that ice -- that is diminishing now in response to climate change. Melting permafrost in surrounding mountains is likely to worsen existing problems with industrial pollution and eutrophication (the increase in nutrients from detergents, fertilizers, and sewage from tourism sites).

A major 2016 study confirmed the trend. Scientists found that surface water temperatures have increase a full 2 degrees Celsius Lake-wide between 1977 and 2003. As a result, populations of non-native, warm-water organisms increased dramatically. Luckily, the study showed that populations of native, cold-water organisms remain stable, and dangerous nutrient loading is restricted to coastal waters. In 2018, another major study reinforced some of the positives. By analyzing the remains of diatoms in the sediment on the Lake’s floor, scientists found that damaging effects of warming over the past 20 years are thus far restricted to the South basin, despite significantly reduced ice cover throughout the Lake.

The title of this post, “A Note on Temperature,” embodies the inspiration for one of our ongoing projects: we’re plotting compelling scientific data as musical notes to create compositions that musically express the Lake’s ecological status. In recent years, a team of scientists led by Maxim Timofeyev at Irkutsk State University has focused extensively on the impact of temperature changes on the Lake’s native and non-native amphipods, or crustaceans, which are absolutely critical to the Lake’s health. This latest composition draws on data from one of their recent studies, showing that amphipods undergo severe stress when subjected to changing temperatures.  

In this work-in-progress, “Izmir Ambience” represents the stress response of native amphipod Eulimnogammarus verrucosus, “Reflective Strings” represents the stress response of endemic amphipod Ommatogammarus flavus, and “Nylon Shimmer” represents the reaction to changing temperatures of non-native amphipod Gammarus lacustris. Higher notes for each electronic “instrument” in the composition represent increased stress response among the delicate and beautiful crustaceans.

The upshot of all these studies? Baikal faces real danger, but unlike many other bodies of water around the world, it is not too late. There is still time to reduce nutrient inputs and pollution, and to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Our own data show that two American artists and researchers can survive the Siberian winter (and capture some photos and videos without too much frost nip). But the reality is that we cheated a bit. Rapid warming in Siberia likely made the ordeal more tolerable. And our small victory hints at a major defeat unless rapid action is taken.

There is a prominent bright spot. Russian and international scientists and ecologists are fighting to be heard -- and fighting for change. Russia has the unique opportunity to stand out -- as the place where the worst damage to one of the world’s most precious bodies of water was avoided.

We can all drink to that -- voda, not vodka -- a clear, fresh glass of pristine Baikal water. That’s still possible to find, at least in most places on the Lake.

Images in this blog post were captured at Lake Baikal, frozen in ice, and then rephotographed.

Images in this blog post were captured at Lake Baikal, frozen in ice, and then rephotographed.




Cyberian Dispatch 11: Expedition to the Rookery

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

In the middle of Lake Baikal is a remote archipelago called the Ushkanii Islands, including Big Ushkan Island, and three smaller islands, Tiny, Round and Long. These secluded and rugged isles are primarily known as the site of a rookery.

Can’t remember what a “rookery” is? Neither could we. Dictionary.com defines it as “a breeding place or colony of gregarious birds or animals, as penguins and seals.” The Ushkanii Islands are the mating spot of the world’s only entirely freshwater seal, or nerpa, the exceptionally cute mammal that is at the top of Baikal’s food chain.

A few days ago, we had the unique opportunity to embed with a group of scientists from the Baikal Museum. The Museum operates a number of live cameras that let you peer into Baikal’s depths, scan its shoreline, and most impressive of all, view the summer rookery of the nerpas. But one of their cameras on the Ushkanii Islands was disabled, and they planned an expedition to repair it.

Outfitted with ample warm clothes, sturdy boots, flashlights, sleeping bags, dry food, and high hopes, we climbed into a truck called “Bongo” at 7:00 am. After stopping for more provisions, our driver Alexander, the Deputy Director of the Museum, stayed in touch by walkie-talkie with another group of scientists, including Director Alexander Kupchinsky, driving a truck called “Patriot.” Gradually we made our way from Irkutsk to the southern end of the Lake and started up the eastern side, entering Buryatia. By nightfall, we had reached a very modest national park hostel in Ust-Barguzin. There, amidst celebrations and libations, we attempted to sleep in a common room, some on cots and some on the floor.

The next morning, we entered Zabaikalsky National Park on the territory of a peninsula known as the “Holy Nose.” Winding our way on dirt roads through the park, we eventually reached a set of signs with a variety of prominent warnings in Russian. Here the expedition would enter the open ice of Baikal and travel to the Ushkanii Islands.

It was only one week earlier when we first rode in a marshrutka (or minibus) on Baikal’s ice, on our way to Olkhon Island. It was quite fantastical at first because the mind can’t fully comprehend how ice safely supports an entire bus. But at Olkhon, the frozen road is marked and monitored by authorities. This time, we were sneezed out of the Holy Nose to navigate on our own.

Sometimes Google can find your car on Lake Baikal.

Sometimes Google can find your car on Lake Baikal.

Sometimes it can’t.

Sometimes it can’t.

And the ice is not without perils. This year, there are a startling number of large cracks, many stretching kilometers in erratic patterns. Some have refrozen and can be crossed easily with four wheel drive. But others are “live,” meaning they are still actively piling massive, bright blue ice boulders in front of passenger vehicles, or exposing dangerous open water into which truck wheels -- or an entire truck -- could plunge.

In fact, we quickly met several obstacles of piled ice that were insurmountable, and we were forced to drive many kilometers searching for a suitable location to pass. And then we came upon open water that emphatically blocked our way forward. We waited uncertainly, wondering if the mission might need to be abandoned. But the resourceful scientists were ready. They lay long wooden boards across the lapping waters and navigated the vehicles across an improvised bridge to the other side.

This maneuver enabled our arrival by evening to living quarters on Big Ushkan Island, hosted by Tatiana, a kind-hearted Russian women who lives year-round in this location. We warmed ourselves next to a traditional pechka (Russian stove) and feasted on simple but satisfying dishes.

In the morning, we left camp, driving a short distance in Bongo and Patriot to the base of a hill. We darted up the steep slopes, across the snow and through the forest to the peak, where the broken video camera was situated. Here, reticent Volodya quickly diagnosed the problem, and Anka, a spirited guide from the museum, descended to the trucks to retrieve a critical part.

In the meantime, we savored the delicate, precious quiet that is so rare in today’s world, with only a woodpecker and the gentle wind punctuating the silence. And we stood in awe, gazing from the heights at miraculous vistas. The unending expanse of ice, interrupted only by massive cracks. The majestic mountains of the Holy Nose, rising in perfect triangles that betray the story of their cataclysmic, seismic origins. The smaller Ushkanii Islands, their thick larch forests blurred by a nebulous fog. They are all incomparable to any other place we know.

Repairs were accomplished quickly, and after one more night at the camp, we found ourselves departing this Shangri-la -- and again searching for ways across Baikal’s serpentine crystal blockades. Tatiana attributed the large number of cracks to the sudden temperature change in February. In the beginning of the month, the Baikal region was still experiencing “moroz,” or the severe frost of -20 to -40 Celsius. But by the end of the month, temperatures had soared to between +5 and -15 Celsius.

Of course, no one event can be attributed specifically to climate change. Instead, it is the trends over time that establish scientific validity. But back in Irkutsk, Daria Bedulina, a scientist at Irkutsk State University’s Institute of Biology, wrote a telling post on Instagram. “The planet heats unevenly,” she wrote. “On average, since the beginning of the 20th century, the temperature on the Earth’s surface has increased by 1 degree, but in polar regions and in Siberia, this is happening two to three times faster.

“Ice is very important for our lake, and it is gradually going away,” she continued. In 50 years, the duration of the ice has reduced by 14 days. And this did not happen without any impact for cold-loving native species. Their numbers began to decline sharply, and they were replaced by heat-loving non-native species that are plentiful in other lakes.”

Sadly, we did not see any nerpas at the Ushkanii Islands. At this time of year, they are still hiding under the ice, and will emerge later in the season. You, too, will be able to view them on the newly repaired live web cam, located on the Baikal’s Museum’s website. (See especially the top two web cams on the left side of the screen.)

But nerpas, like other native species, rely heavily on the ice for their survival. It is under the ice that new pups are raised, and if pups don’t completely molt while the ice is still standing, they will become ill or suffer attacks from birds. Also, the nerpas eat fish that, in turn, feed on smaller native species that are negatively impacted by rapidly rising temperatures. It is an unfortunate fact that the entire ecosystem of Baikal is at risk if there are drastic changes in the ice cover.

Daria Bedulina’s post was immediately disputed by climate skeptics claiming that warming is cyclical and not a serious issue for the Lake. But she defended the findings of Russian and international scientists, and she called attention to simple steps we can all take to reduce negative outcomes.

As we crossed huge cracks in Lake Baikal’s ice, we worried about our own safety. But it is the safety of Lake Baikal that should be foremost in our minds. We must not let fissures in society turn us away from incontrovertible evidence. Nor can we let Baikal’s ecosystem be irreparably fractured.

A Buryat legend suggests that Lake Baikal was created after an epic earthquake when fire sprang out of the earth and local people chanted, “Bai, gal!,” or “Fire, stop!” in the Buryat language. Now, the Lake is threatened by a new type of fire -- temperatures that are rising more rapidly than scientists expected.

This time, an inferno did not erupt from the earth in a sudden convulsion. Instead, accumulating heat creeps and glides and insinuates itself under Baikal’s precious ice. But a cry of “Fire, stop!” is just as apt today as it was at the moment Baikal was born.

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