irkutsk

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. 




Why Care About Lake Baikal?

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Why should people all over the world care about Lake Baikal? 

A lot of superlatives are attached to the crescent-shaped marvel in remote, southeastern Siberia. Oldest. Deepest. Largest by volume. The richest in endemic species. Among the clearest. But we propose a new one: most important.

Other lakes are larger in surface area, but Baikal surpasses them all in depth, with a lake floor, formed as a rift valley 25 to 30 million years ago, that’s 1642 meters (5387 feet) below the surface. All of that depth means that Baikal is deceivingly monstrous, containing more than 20 percent of the entire world’s supply of unfrozen fresh water. And unlike most deep lakes, Baikal is heavily oxygenated even near the bottom because the Lake’s water, which flows in from as many as 330 surrounding rivers, mixes thoroughly from top to bottom. 

Baikal’s enormous water supply supports thousands of plants and animals -- as many as 80 percent of them unique species living nowhere else in the world. This includes everything from the tiniest single-celled algae, to tiny organisms that filter the Lake’s water, to bright green sponges. It also includes spectacular crustaceans, unique fish species, and the world’s only true freshwater seal, or nerpa. There are more than 236 species of birds in the region, and the surrounding forests and dense taiga, much of it protected parkland, are home to bears, wolves, foxes, and dozens of other animals. 

But Baikal is not only special because of its size and its rich and diverse ecosystem. Its importance also stems from its cultural and spiritual significance. Baikal is called the “Sacred Sea” by native populations of Buryats and Evenks, who consider it a living being that must be afforded the utmost respect. These native peoples, practicing Shamanism and Buddhism or both, lived their lives in deep concert with the natural world long before the environmental movement developed in the West. And they carry out ceremonies to this day in tribute to the spirits that inhabit the Lake and its surroundings.

Whether they believe in these spirits or not, local residents and visitors respect them because they can feel Baikal’s special power, its majesty, and its ability to change from moment to moment. Its different winds are so powerful that they have their own distinct names. Its fog sweeps in and out in moments, obliterating and then revealing the landscape. Its waves can rise 4 meters during stormy conditions. Its small creatures, each one a masterpiece of creation, float and wriggle and dance hundreds of meters below the surface. Its ice forms endless patterns and textures that are miraculously complex -- and sounds of cracking that range from sublime to terrifying.  

These ineffable qualities are why Baikal is a cultural phenomenon for all of Russia and beyond. The classic ecologist and novelist Valentin Rasputin drew a connection between the “eternity and perfection” of the Sacred Sea and the vitality of rural village life. Contemporary Moscow-based composer Marina Shmotova is inspired by Baikal’s history and magnificence, and Irkutsk-based experimental musician Evgeny Masloboev creates unexpectedly beautiful music from its water and ice.

Baikal is exceptionally deep, both literally and figuratively. It is hard to imagine another waterway that inspires such reverence and awe from those who encounter it. 

It is, indeed, the Sacred Sea. And we must (re)learn how to treat it that way. 









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 Bolshie 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.