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Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal

The Great Lakes are a prominent feature of the North American landscape, but Russia holds the distinction of having the "World's Great Lake." Called the "Pearl of Siberia" or the "Sacred Sea" by locals, Lake Baikal is the world's deepest and largest lake by volume. It has a surface area of 12,162 sq miles (31,500 sq km), a maximum depth of 5,370 ft (1,637 m), or slightly more than 1 mile, an average depth of 2,428 ft (740 m), and a volume of 30,061 cu yd (23,000 cum). It thus contains more water than the combined volume of all of the North American Great Lakes20 percent of the world's fresh water (and 80 percent of the fresh water of the former Soviet Union).

Lake Baikal is located in Russia in south-central Siberia near the northern border of Mongolia. Scientists estimate that the lake was formed 25 million years ago by tectonic (earthquake ) displacement, creating a crescent-shaped, steep-walled basin 395 miles (635 km) long by 50 miles (80 km) wide and nearly 5.6 miles (9 km) deep. In contrast, the Great Lakes were formed by glacial scouring a mere 10,000 years ago.

Although sedimentation has filled in 80 percent of the basin over the years, the lake is believed to be widening and deepening ever so slightly with time because of recurring crustal movements. The area surrounding Lake Baikal is underridden by at least three crustal plates, causing frequent earthquakes. Fortunately, most are too weak to feel.

Like similarly ancient Lake Tanganyika in Africa, the waters of Lake Baikal host a great number of unique species . Of the 1,200 known animal and 600 known plant species, more than 80 percent are endemic to this lake. These include many species of fish, shrimp, and the world's only fresh water sponges and seals . Called nerpa or nerpy by the natives, these seals (Phoca sibirica ) are silvery-gray in color and can grow to 5 ft (1.5 m) long and weigh up to 286 lb (130 kg). Their diet consists almost exclusively of a strange-looking relict fish called golomyanka (Comephorus baicalensis ), rendered translucent by its fat-filled body. Unlike other fish, they lack scales and swim bladders and give birth to live larvae rather than eggs. The seal population is estimated at 60,000. Commercial hunters are permitted to kill 6,000 each year.

Although the waters of Lake Baikal are pristine by the standards of other large lakes, increased pollution threatens its future. Towns along its shores and along the stretches of the Selenga River, the major tributary flowing into Baikal, add human and industrial wastes, some of which is nonbiodegradable and some highly toxic. A hydroelectric dam on the Angara River, the lake's only outlet, raised the water level and placed spawning areas of some fish below the optimum depth. Most controversial to the people who depend on this lake for their livelihood and pleasure, however, was the construction of a large cellulose plant at the southern end near the city of Baikalsk in 1957. Built originally to manufacture high-quality aircraft tires (ironically, synthetic tires proved superior), today it produces clothing from bleached cellulose and employs 3,500 people. Uncharacteristic public outcry over the years has resulted in the addition of advanced sewage treatment facilities to the plant. Although some people would like to see it shut down, the local (and national) economy has taken precedence.

In 1987 the Soviet government passed legislation protecting Lake Baikal from further destruction. Logging was prohibited anywhere close to the shoreline and nature reserves and national parks were designated. However, with the recent political turmoil and crippling financial situation in the former Soviet Union, these changes have not been enforced and the lake continues to receive pollutants. Much more needs to be done to assure the future of this magnificent lake.

See also Endemic species

[John Korstad ]



Feshbach, M., and A. Friendly, Jr. Ecocide in the USSR. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Matthiessen, P. Baikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992.


Belt, D. "Russia's Lake Baikal, the World's Great Lake." National Geographic 181 (June 1992): 239.

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