irkutsk

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 9: Playing Hide and Seek with the Angara

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

There are more than 330 rivers that flow into Lake Baikal, filling the cavernous Lake with one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. But there is only one mighty river that flows out: the Angara.

In Irkutsk, the largest city on the Angara, the River is half a block from our apartment, so we have almost daily encounters with its intensely different moods, striking range of colors, and its habit of hiding from local residents.

There is a longtime legend in Siberia that Angara was the exceptionally beautiful daughter of Old Man Baikal, and he was filled with love and admiration for her. But one day, while Baikal was sleeping, Angara slipped away to try and meet the young Yenisei. Grandfather Baikal was furious, and ripping a cliff from a nearby mountain, flung it at Angara, who was pinned at her throat. Angara begged her father to give her water, since she was parched, but her father refused, saying she was condemned to nothing but her own tears. And since that time, it is her tears that flow from Baikal to the Yenisei River, far to the north and west. Today, the cliff that Grandfather Baikal threw at Angara, called Shaman Rock, is visible at the Angara’s outlet from the Lake.

But the Angara itself is not always visible. Especially in winter, the warmer water flowing from Lake Baikal meets a shockingly cold Siberian air mass, and the result is tuman (туман), the Russian word for fog. In Irkutsk, it might start with a little steam rising off the river. A few hours later, the fishermen in the middle of the River are visible one minute and lost the next. Soon, the three main bridges fade away. The sun is faint, then fainter, then slips completely from view. And finally, there is nothing, only a wall of light gray that obscures everything but the wonderland of icy frosting deliciously decorating the trees along the banks. It is a fog to end all fogs, an ethereal display that lends the entire city an unearthly glamour.

It is also rich with human activity and sound. Near the statue of Tsar Alexander III at the foot of Karl Marx Street, Russian radio is broadcast from loudspeakers, often featuring English language pop songs or Christmas music. On Ostrov Konnyy (literally, Coney Island), near a towering ferris wheel, children gleefully exclaim as they sled from ice sculptures, ice skate, or play hockey. On the frozen shores, fisherman cut holes in the ice with enormous drill bits and wait for hours in the numbing cold to extract a meal. Listen carefully and you will hear lapping waves against the ice, the murmur of ducks foraging, and the sound of a muskrat surfacing and then diving. And most prominent of all, the reverberating announcements of departures from the main railway station, which echo across the invisible water, coupled with the rattling of invisible trains en route to remote destinations.

The alluring tuman is a signature feature of Irkutsk and the Angara, but unfortunately, beneath this exquisite veil some disturbing secrets are hiding. Each major city along the Angara, including Irkutsk, is a site where significant amounts of pollution enter the river, including industrial wastes that seriously threaten the river’s health. Also, the Angara has been dammed four times since the 1950s. The dams chop the river into pieces, blocking any navigation and impeding the transit of fish and other native species. And the creation of numerous reservoirs has radically altered the ecology of the waterway, harming endemic species and increasing the amounts of algae that deprive the River of oxygen.

One of the most important historical voices against dam-building and the diversion of rivers is the late Russian author Valentin Rasputin, who was born in Irkutsk Oblast. Rasputin’s views on this subject were heavily influenced by the fact that his own childhood village along the Angara was destroyed to create a massive hydroelectric plant. His 1979 novel Farewell to Matyora is focused on a fictional village that suffers a similar fate, and a later non-fiction work, Siberia, Siberia also dwells on this theme. Although some consider his work “anti-modern,” and his conservative politics were controversial, his influence on environmentalism in this region -- including the fight to save Lake Baikal -- looms large. (Those who are interested in a film treatment of his work can search for the 2008 Russian film, Live and Remember, in which the Angara plays a starring role.)

Dam-building continues to be an issue that is central to the future of the entire region. Among the threats to Lake Baikal’s health are proposals to build several dams on the Selenga River and its tributaries that flow from Mongolia to Lake Baikal. The plans threaten to disrupt the ecology of the Selenga River delta, the largest source of Baikal’s water and a major habitat for Baikal’s endemic species. They will also affect the water level, water quality, and ecosystem throughout the Lake. In 2017, activists achieved a small victory when the World Bank froze its support for the planned projects, but efforts by Mongolia to become energy independent, together with lavish Chinese financing, mean the fight is by no means over.

Here in Irkutsk, we play hide and seek with the Angara and its veil of tuman almost every day. We hide ourselves in its blanket of white, embracing the ghostly nothingness for as long as our arctic mittens and winter boots will permit. We take endless photos of its spare visual delights. But we also seek the truth about the environmental health of the Angara and of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk’s homegrown environmental leader, Valentin Rasputin, was one of the first to understand that there is “damming” evidence of harm. All those concerned about the future of our waterways must join together to respond.


Cyberian Dispatch 1: Exile Begins

by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

"You're going there willingly?"

That's been one of the most common responses when we tell people we're headed to Siberia. Yes, we chose to spend the next nine months in this place that is known primarily as a punishment and a place of exile.

The practice of sending people to the Far East began under the Tsars and continued under Communism. Somehow the authorities thought they could accomplish two things at once: punish people and use their labor to develop this vast and forbidding region. Common criminals, intellectuals and political insubordinates rubbed shoulders on the long trip East and after they arrived. And the political prisoners, some as notable as Dostoevsky, brought many elements of culture with them, causing Irkutsk, the city where we're now located, to eventually be nicknamed "the Paris of the East."

Stepping off the overnight flight from Moscow, we were hit by a brisk breeze and a certain something different about the air. Was it thicker, did it smell of the deep woods, did it have healing properties? Our new friend from the International Office of Irkutsk National Research Technological University, Assia, scoffed at this notion. "It's just the airport," she said, laughing. But we were convinced it was true.

Assia tried to reassure us that it was colder than a normal September. "It snowed yesterday," she reported, "but that's not normal for this time of year." We know that temperatures of minus 20 Fahrenheit are not too far in the future. But in the meantime, t-shirt weather is restored, with the first brilliant yellows rapidly emerging on the plentiful birch trees.

And the inviting weather made possible our first trip to Lake Baikal, the crescent-shaped "sacred jewel," the deepest lake in the world, containing one-fifth of earth's fresh water. We traveled on a boat from Irkutsk with Mikhail, who seems to know everything and everybody -- and has natural amphetamines coursing through his veins. As the boat made its way up the Angara River, the only river that drains from Lake Baikal, we caught sight of the mountains on the other side of the Lake, in Buryatia, the semi-autonomous land of the indigenous Buryat people. They appeared like a mystical wall, with ample snow already ladled onto the peaks, and no sign of human interference: not a ship, not a town, not a house.

The boat turned and chugged to Bolshoe Koty, or Large Cats, a miniscule village that is accessible only by water during the summer months (and by car once the Lake freezes solid in January). After disembarking, Mikhail sprinted at an inhuman pace up a hill to an overlook where the Lake spread out in front of us and the view of Buryatia was even more surreal, the peaks appearing blue and white through an other-worldly haze. The entire village was visible at our feet, including a laboratory in a miniature wooden house that pursues research on the impact of pollutants and warming temperatures on marine life. After descending again, we met the biologists who are methodically trying to understand how best to protect the lake's ecosystem. Their beakers and petri dishes contained samples of Lake water and small sponges gathered from the bottom, and they showed us photographs of indigenous organisms, essential food for the Lake's fish, that are increasingly threatened by chemical spills and unusually high temperatures.

According to Buryat legend, a great earthquake caused fire to spew from the earth. The people gathered and cried, "Bai, gal!," or "Fire, stop!" in the Buryat language. And when their prayers were answered and the fire ended, the chasm filled with water, creating Lake Baikal. The Buryat tradition is extremely respectful of nature and its balance. But now, a second fire, that of climate change, threatens this equilibrium. In fact, the region around Lake Baikal is one of the places on Earth most threatened by global warming. Our project will explore the connection between these ancient and contemporary "fires," and call attention to the importance of preserving the Lake's pristine waters.

On the way back to Irkutsk, a generous sunset was unveiled on the left banks of the Angara, glinting through the spray from the boat. Undoubtedly, exiles suffered and died in this region in ways we can never fully comprehend. But those who were able to set eyes upon Lake Baikal must have had some small consolation. Baikal is still a sacred jewel, one of the most unique and precious spots on the planet. Having seen it only once, we count ourselves among the lucky.