Lake Baikal is widely known not only in our country, but also abroad, and it has enjoyed special universal attention for a couple of decades. Thanks to many scientists, specialists, public movements and activists Lake Baikal was included into the World Natural Heritage UNESCO list in December 1996. It is possible to say that a new page in the history of studying the lake and its preservation was turned over.
Much has been written about Lake Baikal. Its image arises in legends, tales, novels, ballets. The Baikal nature is admiringly sung by poets, artists depict its incomparable landscapes in their pictures, bright booklets are published, masses of tourists come to delight the nature of the lake and to breathe in its healthy air. Lake Baikal is dear to us with its uniqueness, originality and its riches.
Lake Baikal has been attracting scientists for almost three centuries already. Moreover, its nature is researched not only by natural scientists (geologists, geographers, physicists, chemists or biologists) but also by historians, ethnographers, philologists, philosophers and archeologists. That’s why the sphere of scientific and general problems connected with Lake Baikal is very broad.
Newspapers and magazines most often mention Lake Baikal in connection with regulating the flow of the Angara River and constructing of the great Baikal-Angara hydropower system and also with the activity of two plants, Baikalsk cellulose and paper plant and Selenginsk cellulose and cardboard plant; but in general the problems of the lake are closely interrelated and are very complex.
A result of many years of the Baikal research and exploration is extensive specialized literature including hundreds of books and articles. These books and articles are not available for a wide range of readers, and the list of brief and informative literature on the lake is not so long. It’s necessary to mention books by S.A. Gurulev “Baikal Mysteries” (1968) and “What’s in Your Name, Baikal” (1991), L.L. Rossolimo “The Baikal” (1971) and of course the book by G.I. Galazi “Lake Baikal in Questions and Answers” (1988).
The lake is unique because it is one of the oldest ones on the Earth (its age is about 25 mln. and there are no signs of its becoming older and probable disappearance in the foreseeable future like many lakes have disappeared), the deepest one (its maximum depth is 1,642 m) and one of the biggest ones (it contains more than 20% of the world’s fresh water supply). Lake Baikal is inhabited by more than 2,630 species of animals and plants, and almost 2/3 of them are endemic ones. They appear in the lake and are found nowhere in the world, that is, the lake is a great natural laboratory and a species origin centre. Ground deposits of that ancient lake keep precious information on the paleoclimatic changes over millions of years.
The area of Lake Baikal water surface is 31.5 mln sq. km and its total water capacity is more than 23 thousand cub. m. Lake Baikal is the biggest reservoir and factory of the best quality water. Every year it produces about 60 cub. km of wonderful and incomparable high quality water the meaning of which has been growing continuously. The unique clearness of the water is provided by vital function of its unique animals and plants. But it’s enough to destroy only one link of the complex and the balanced nutrition system or other relations, and the whole ecosystem will be ruined.
Lake Baikal’s depth of 1,642 m is considered to be unique for the lakes of the Earth. Its average depth is about 730 m. The bottom of Lake Baikal at the biggest depth consists of loose deposits and is located 1,181 m lower than the World sea level.
The basin of the lake consists of three parts, the northern, the central and the southern ones. The biggest depths are in the central part. In the southern basin the biggest depth – 1,432 m – is between the mouths of the Pereyemnaya and Mishikha rivers. In the northern part the deepest place – 890 m – is near the lake shore between the Yelokhin and Pokoiniki capes, moreover, the deepest places are closer to the western shore of the basin because the main lines of the tectonic breaks and the greatest sinking of the earth’s crust blocks which have made up the bottom of the lake are along the western shores. Lake Baikal has 6 big gulfs, about 20 bays and several sors (coves). The biggest gulf is the Barguzinsky with the water surface of 725 sq. km, then the Chivyrkuisky (270 sq. km), the Proval (197 sq. km), the Posolsky (35 sq. km), the Cherkalov (20 sq. km) and the Mukhor (16 sq. km). The biggest sor is the Verkhne-Angarsky, or Severo-Baikalsky, its area is 23 sq. km. But a part of its surface is swamped and covered with water plants. The biggest open water sor is the Posolsky.
336 rivers flow into Lake Baikal. Together with ravines which can become river-beds after rains their number can increase up to 1,123. But it’s not so hydrologically strict. There is an opinion that excessive woodcutting and the world climate changes caused disappearance of 150 rivers and streams. That’s why less rivers flow into the lake than it used to be before. It is not statistically proved yet but more precise research is planned with the use of modern geographic maps, air and space photography.
The biggest tributary of the lake is the Selenga which annually brings there about 40% of river water.
To know the origin of the word Baikal is very interesting. There is no definite answer yet. There is an opinion that Baikal is a Turkic word coming from Bai-Kul which means “rich lake” (cf. Issyk-Kul, “warm lake”, Kara-Kul, “black lake”). At the same time there is a version that the word comes from the Mongolian word Baigal (“big fire”) or Baigal-Dalai (“big sea lake”).
Pribaikalye (the Baikal land) is the place where a lot of nations live and all of them name the lake in their own way. For instance, the Evenks named it Lamu which means “sea”, and the Buryats – Baigal-Nuur (“Lake Baikal”). There is also a version about the Chinese origin of the word, Bei-Hai or Pe-Hai (“Northern sea”).
Archeological excavations allowed to state the fact that Turkic speaking people (the Kurykans) could have lived in the Baikal land in the late Neolithic age, possibly in the Bronze age. They had the Runic written language of the Turkic people and the Yenissei Kyrghizs. They could be the first to give the lake its name. Though the Runic petroglyphs have not been interpreted yet.
The Evenks living in the Baikal land have given names to many rivers flowing into the lake but there is no word Baikal in their language, it is foreign to them. The word combination Baikal-Nuur testifies to the fact that the lake had already had its name before the Buryats knew about it because the very word combination means that it is a lake. Therefore, the name comes from another language.
In the late 18th century the first explorers of Lake Baikal came to a conclusion that the lake basin emerged as a result of tectonic activity. The Baikal is the central, biggest and most ancient link of the Baikal rift zone which originated and is developing together with the world rift system. The “roots” of the cavity cleave the earth’s crust and penetrate into the mantle 50-60 km deep. As a result of anomalous warming-up of the earth depth the cause of which is yet unknown, the earth’s crust raised which lead to emergence of many tectonic breaks. At the same time the heated substance was flowing under the crust in different directions which produced horizontal forces of expansibility which caused opening of ancient and forming of new breaks, some blocks of the earth’s crust lowered and big cavities formed including the great cavity of Lake Baikal.
The development of the lake cavity has not completed yet. According to geophysicists’ data, the shores of the lake are drifting apart and the basin is broadening with the rate of up to 2 cm a year, that is with the rate of Africa and America or the Red and Mediterranean Seas drifting apart.
Another testimony that the process of the cavity development is going on is frequent earthquakes – up to 2 thousand a year, but they are mostly weak and are registered by seismographs. About once in 10-12 years there are earthquakes force 5-6 (according to force 12 scale), and once in 20-23 years there are more powerful and destructive ones, force more than 7.
In 1862 after a force 10-10.5 earthquake in the northern part of the Selenga delta a part of land with the area of about 200 sq. km sank into the water and formed the Proval (Gap) gulf. It is about 3 m deep now. The forming of the gulf is not completed yet, but it is now separated from the lake by a sandy spit and is connected with it by three shallow straits. In geophysicists’ opinion the Posolsky sor and the Cherkalov gulf formed in a similar way not long ago (about one or two thousand years ago). In 1959 during a 9.5 force earthquake the bottom of the lake in the epicentre sank by 15-20 m. In May and June 1981 there were several earthquakes in the basin of the lake, one of them was near the lower part of the Svyatoi Nos peninsula, force 9. Such earthquakes influence much the morphometry of the lake: its depth, area or width.
Lake Baikal is very important for industrial development. Its water has been used for cellulose and paper making or oil-processing plants until recent years. The amount of water used for industrial purposes was about 2.5 mln cub. m a day. But the biggest consumer of the water is the system of hydropower stations. Since the 60ies Lake Baikal has been the main regulating reservoir of the Angara-Yenissei hydro-power stations system. That’s why the conditions of the filling of the lake water resources are fully subordinate to the working conditions of the hydro-power stations system.
By filling the Irkutsk water reservoir the water level of Lake Baikal was raised by 1 m which damaged the lake ecosystem, the well-balanced nutrition system was ruined, the quantity of omul, the lake’s greatest kind of fish supply, decreased greatly. The coastal fertile soils were flooded, as well as arable lands and villages of the coast, forest lands were seriously damaged too.
In the late 80ies-early 90ies the level of the lake was raised by more than 1 m more than once to get the maximum economic effect. It damages the husbandry, at the same time the lake shore is washed away and the car roads and railway are destroyed. Nowadays there is much work done by both scientific community and by the state to regulate Lake Baikal level for hydro-power engineering.
The Baikalsk cellulose and paper making plant damages the lake greatly. It throws into the lake more than 60 mln cub. m of waste annually. As a result epishura (a kind of tiny crayfish which can clean and filter the water of the lake) dies out in great numbers. As a result of water pollution the growth rate, fertility and fatness of the Baikal fish or nerpa (the Baikal seal) went down. Baikal endemic organisms disappear, they are replaced by cosmopolitans, or common species. The whole ecological system of the lake is being changed.
Of course, protection and preservation of the lake are impossible without protection activities all over the lake basin. The Baikal problem appeared in the 50ies-60ies which were characterized by intensive development of productive forces and cultivation of the natural resources of the Baikal region. Even at that time it resulted in degradation of some natural complexes which caused an ardent discussion on the problem of the lake. Scientists, specialists, writers and non-government organizations were the first to start protesting. They were speaking about the fact that Lake Baikal and its natural resources were of especially great value as unique natural objects and the main condition of their rational usage is its protection and restoration. The adjacent territories influencing the lake should be declared the special zone of natural resources with specific water protection, wood protection and sanitary requirements.
Paying much attention to preservation and rational usage of the Baikal Region natural resources, the USSR Council of Ministers adopted resolution # 52 of January 21, 1969 “On the Measures of Preservation and Rational Usage of Lake Baikal Natural Complexes” where the first measure to be taken was stating Lake Baikal water protecting zone within the limits of its water collecting area (within the USSR territory) with special conditions of natural resources usage in this zone. That resolution was the first to legally introduce an ecologically new regional form of nature usage in the history of nature-community relations.
On February 26, 1969 the USSR Council of Ministers with its resolution # 117 affirmed the fact of stating the system of special nature usage in the basin of Lake Baikal. On July 16, 1971 the Communist Party Central Committee and the USSR Council of Ministers adopted resolution # 391 “On Additional Measures on Providing Rational Usage and Lake Baikal Basin Nature Resources Preservation” in which the requirements were set that the realization of the previous resolution # 52 should be speeded up and intensified.
On July 21, 1977 the Communist Party Central Committee and the USSR Council of Ministers adopted resolution # 679 “On Measures on the Further Provision of the Rational Usage of the Natural Resources of Lake Baikal Basin” which stated a strict strategic objective to completely stop throwing uncleaned wastes into the lake and other rivers and lakes of its basin, and to reduce atmospheric wastes.
On April 13, 1987 the Communist Party Central Committee and the USSR Council of Ministers adopted resolution # 434 “On Measures on Providing Protection and Rational Usage of Lake Baikal Basin Natural Resources in 1987-1995”. It defined due realization dates, therefore, it could be easy to control its realization, it was also scientifically considered, permanent control commission was organized to monitor the condition of the lake basin natural complex. But the main shortcoming of the resolution was the fact that it was not financially supported enough, that’s why it could not be realized in full.
With reforming the economic relations in the early 90ies all these resolutions became invalid. Nevertheless in 1992 the Baikal government commission was organized to realize the Russian Federation Government resolution # 992 of December 18, 1992 “On the Baikal Government Commission”.
According to the President of Russia Decree # 23 of February 4, 1994 the objective to preserve Lake Baikal basin natural complex was named a priority direction of the Russian Federation State Strategy of environmental protection and sustainable development provision. In November 1994 the Russian Federation Government with its resolution # 1306 approved the Complex federal programme on Lake Baikal preservation and rational usage of its basin natural resources.
Besides the official government documents in the Baikal region there are projects of joint international research supported by the World Reconstruction and Development Bank and other organizations.
No doubt that al these measures will help preserve Lake Baikal with its crystal clear water and unique ecological system for future generations.