Known as the "Pearl of Siberia," Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest lake on earth. Home to more than one thousand endemic species of aquatic life, it is a focal point for environmental activism and Siberian national pride.
Located in south central Siberia, Baikal is 636 kilometers (395.2 miles) long, 80 kilometers (49.71 miles) wide, and 1,637 meters (5,371 feet) deep. A watershed of 55,000 hectares (212.4 square miles) feeds the lake through more than three hundred rivers. Only the Angara River drains Baikal, flowing northwest from the southern tip of the lake. The lake probably began to form about 25 million years ago, at the site of a tectonic rift. The fault continues to widen and there are thermal vents in the lake's depths.
Baikal's zooplankton, called epishura, is at the base of a unique food chain, with the prized Omul salmon and the nerpa, the world's only freshwater seal, at its top. Epishura is also a biological filter, contributing to the lake's extraordinary clarity and purity. The Baikal Ridge along the northwest shore of the lake is heavily populated by birds and animals and contains deposits of titanium, lead, and zinc. The Khamardaban range, lying to the south of the lake, contains gold, tungsten, and coal.
Humans have inhabited the area around Baikal at least since the Mesolithic period (ten to twelve thousand years ago). The dominant native peoples in the area since the twelfth to fourteenth centuries C.E. are Buryat Mongols. Another local tribe is the Evenks, a Tungus clan of traditional reindeer nomads of the taiga. Many native peoples consider Baikal sacred, and some believe that Olkhon Island, the largest on the lake, was the birthplace of Genghis Khan.
Russian explorers first came to the shores of Baikal in 1643, and by 1650 Russia had completed its annexation of the area around the lake. Russians met little resistance from indigenous peoples in the area, and Russian populations gradually increased over the following centuries, attracted by the fur trade and mining. The city of Irkutsk, on the Angara River, was a destination for convicts, including political exiles, during the nineteenth century. The Trans–Siberian Railway, which runs around the south tip of the lake, brought more settlers and more rapid economic development to the area during the 1890s. A Circum–Baikal Railway opened in 1900. Construction of the Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM), a second trans–Siberian rail line that passes just north of the lake, took place from 1943 to 1951 and resumed in the 1974.
The fragile ecology of Lake Baikal faces many threats. The two large rail lines at either end of the lake have compromised the watersheds through logging and erosion. Lumber mills and factories near Ulan–Ude send thousands of tons of contaminants annually into the lake. The Baikalsk cellulose combine has altered the ecology of the southern part of the lake, killing off epishura and accounting for high concentrations of PCBs and other toxins. Large die–offs of nerpa seals have been attributed to dioxin contamination. Environmental activists have vigorously opposed industrial development, and have focused international attention on the lake. Two nature reserves (zapovedniks ) and two national parks protect portions of the lake-shore. The entire lake and its coastal protection zone became a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1996.
See also: buryats; environmentalism; evenki
Mote, Victor L. (1998). Siberia: Worlds Apart. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.