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.