What comes to your mind when someone mentions Siberia? Do you think of endless fields of ice under bleak gray skies? Or do you imagine a bitter exile from which there is no return?
Siberia has become synonymous with both of these things to many people; most would not choose it as a vacation spot or rush to book a tour.
However, what many people don’t know is that it is home to one of the most biologically diverse habitats on earth—one of the unofficial “wonders of the undersea world.”
The famous Lake Baikal is located in Siberia, a region that makes up more than 75% of Russia’s total landmass. Located close to the Mongolian border, Lake Baikal holds a massive amount of water—approximately 20% of all the liquid freshwater reserves on earth—more than any other freshwater lake on the planet! If you were able to “pull the plug” on the lake it would take all the water in all the Great Lakes to fill it again!
This beautiful, exceptionally clear lake is home to more endemic (native) species than any other lake in the world. And many of these plants and animals are found nowhere else. Baikal is also the earth’s deepest lake, plunging to more than a mile below the water’s surface in some areas.
Revered in folklore since ancient times (some legends say that its Olkhon Island was the birthplace of the fierce Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan), the lake has been the subject of serious investigation since the first Russian explorers journeyed to it in 1643.
The first official scientific expedition began in 1723, at the request of Peter I of Russia, but it is only within the last century that explorers have been able to search Baikal’s depths using modern technology. Recently, scientists have discovered several of the more interesting characteristics of this massive body of water.
One of these is its “active” location. It sits cupped by three separate tectonic plates that intersect, creating minor earthquakes in the surrounding region every few hours. Because of this, it is quite likely that thermal vents on the lake’s floor contribute to the circulation of the lower levels of water, and are thought to play a role in the unusually high oxygen levels in the lake. These high concentrations enable a much wider variety of plants and animals to thrive in depths that would otherwise be inhospitable to life!
The lake’s remarkable qualities have made it home to some unique animal species, such as the largest flatworm on earth, which can mature to almost 16 inches long, and hunts fish for food!
Lake Baikal is also incredibly clear; one can see 130 feet beneath its surface! The lake’s remarkable clarity is partially attributed to its massive population of a small crayfish, Baikal Epishura, which eats algae and other particulates in the water that would lower visibility. It is estimated that these tiny crustaceans (about 1.5 mm long), along with others of their species, filter 10 to 15 times the amount of water that flows into the lake, keeping it clean and clear.
Lake Baikal is also home to one of the world’s few freshwater seal species, called a Nerpa. These silvery-gray seals are similar to their saltwater counterparts, except for a few specific characteristics that have helped them survive in their deep, freshwater lake habitat. To survive long swims under ice and deep diving conditions, they have four more pints of blood than any other seal—enabling them to go without fresh air for 70 minutes! And they are capable of diving to almost 1,000 feet below the water’s surface! Their hidden dens are carved out of snow and ice, and are entered underwater from below the iced-over winter lake.
Another interesting animal that exists exclusively in these waters is a fish that composes much of the Nerpa’s diet, called a Golomyanka. With a translucent body and no scales, it is unusual in many ways. A particularly fatty fish (with up to 30% of its body composed of oil), it is able to withstand high pressure from deep water, and also adapt to the much less-pressurized water closer to the surface. The Golomyanka contains so much fat that, if left out of water in the sunlight, it will “melt,” leaving only what appears to be a puddle of oil and a skeleton! These amazing creatures represent only a fraction of the intriguing fauna in Lake Baikal, drawing people from all over the world for both research and recreation.
Still, it is Siberia. Lake Baikal is chilly year round, with surface temperatures ranging from the high 30s to the low 60s (Fahrenheit). The entire lake is frozen over for more than five months out of the year, although, because of its size and depth, the water usually remains at least partially exposed until early January, long after the rest of the region has frosted. When it finally does freeze, however, the layer of ice is so thick that the Trans-Siberian Railway briefly ran across it!
From shoreline to bottomless depth, Lake Baikal has been marveled at for centuries, and in modern times is more fully understood as an awesome aspect of God’s great creation!
Sources: www.bww.irk.ru; www.baikal.eastsib.ru; National Geographic