With a maximum depth of 5,315 feet, Lake Baikal, a rift lake, formed about 20 to 25 million years ago. It is the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world, and is located in the southern part of eastern Siberia. The lake also holds the greatest volume of fresh water among the planet's lakes, and thus accounts for nearly 20% of the Earth’s freshwater resources. The lake covers a massive area of 31,500 square kilometers. 333 rivers and streams, including the Selenga, Angara, and Barguzin Rivers, drain into Lake Baikal. The lake also hosts Olkhon, the world’s fourth largest lake-bound island. In 1996, Lake Baikal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Evidence of human occupation of the Lake Baikal area dates back to the Neolithic period. Hunting and gathering activities supported the lives of these ancient dwellers, who hunted the Baikal seal (the nerpa) on a seasonal basis. In later years, Paleo-Asian populations, comprised by Mongols and Buryat peoples, existed in the region. Between the 2nd Century BC and 1st Century AD, the lake witnessed the Han-Xiongnu War between the Han Dynasty and Xiongnu forces.The Neo-Siberian Russian settlers started arriving in the lake region towards the middle of the 17th Century after 1643, when Kurbat Ivanov became the first Russian explorer to reach Lake Baikal. Between 1896 and 1902, the Trans-Siberian Railway was built around the southwestern end of Lake Baikal.
Lake Baikal is often referred to as ‘the Pearl of Siberia’ because of its extreme economic significance. The scenic landscape of the lake and its staggering biodiversity, combined with its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, draw tourists to this spot from all over the globe. In 2007, the government of Russia declared the lake as a Special Economic Zone. Since then, a large number of hotels, resorts, and other tourist facilities have cropped up along the shores of this lake, benefiting the local economy of the region. As per the reports of the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, 146,937 visitors fell upon Lake Baikal and nearby Irkutsk in the year 2014 alone. The lake is also a site of important geological, biological, and environmental research projects. For example, the Baikalian Research Center, formed in 2003 and based on the shores of this lake, conducts research on the environment of the lake. Lake Baikal is also an important source of fishing, which serves as the livelihood for a large number of local people dwelling near the lake.
Habitat and Biodiversity
Surface waters of the lake freeze during the winter season and thaw back out again every May or June. Average temperatures of the lake in wintertime is around −21° Celsius. The waters of the lake are also quite transparent, and have low levels of salinity. Lake Baikal hosts a large number of islands, and is surrounded by the Baikal mountains and extensive expanses of taiga forests. The lake hosts an amazing array of plant and animal life, including 1,085 plant species and 1,550 animal species, of which 80% are endemic in nature. The Baikal oil fish, Baikal seal, Baikal sturgeon, and Baikal grayling are some of the notable endemic aquatic species of Lake Baikal. A large diversity of endemic invertebrates also inhabit the lake's habitats, including the Epischura baikalensis (the dominant zooplankton species there), groups of freshwater snails, and Turbellarian flatworms. Eurasian lynxes, Red deer, Reindeer, Brown bears, European Roe deer, Black storks, Peregrine falcons, and Siberian larches are some of the iconic Red List species of animals and birds inhabiting the forests along the shores of Lake Baikal.
Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes
Developmental activities along the shores of Lake Baikal pose the greatest threat to its ecosystem and biodiversity. The Baykalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, established in 1966 on the shores of the lake, has been held responsible for discharging large amounts of its industrial wastes into the lake. Despite protests by environmental organizations, the company still operates there. In 2006, mass protests by environmental organizations and the local community members triggered the change of plans made for the construction of an oil pipeline by the state-controlled company Transneft JSC. The pipeline was originally planned to pass within 2,600 feet of Lake Baikal’s shoreline in a zone threatened seismic activity. Past proposals to set up nuclear power plants near the lake have also been met with resistance by the environmentally-conscious sectors of the Russian public. The flourishing tourism industry, though a boost for the local economy of the region, also threatens the pristine habitats of the lake and the lives of its wildlife species. Illegal logging, mineral mining, and illegal construction activities along Lake Baikal have also lowered the water levels in the lake. This has led to low water availability in the villages surrounding the lake, and subjected many of the local fishermen to economic losses.