Take a deep-dive into the natural wonders of Russia's Lake Baikal, where beautiful turquoise shards of ice mesmerize its visitors.
Located in Siberia, Laka Baikal is a natural wonder on Earth. It is the largest freshwater lake on the planet, containing approximately 20 percent of the Earth’s entire surface water, and the oldest lake in the world being at least 25 million years old.
The water of Lake Baikal is renowned for being some of the clearest on Earth. When the lake freezes during the winter, an amazing phenomena takes place: large shards of transparent ice form on the surface of the lake, giving the amazing appearance of turquoise ice when reflected by sunlight.
Lake Baikal’s Historical And Biological Significance
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how old Lake Baikal is, but scientists agree that it is likely at least 25 million years old, if not older (by comparison, the average lake is about 20,000 years old). The lake is categorized as a “rift valley,” a geological phenomenon that forms when two tectonic structures — in this case the Siberian platform and the Amurian/North China plate — shift away from one another.
Incredibly, Lake Baikal’s geological makeup continues to change until this day, resulting in roughly 2,000 mini earthquakes (or tremors) every year. Its constantly shifting structure also causes the lake to grow more than half an inch wider annually.
Lake Baikal’s age and isolation — surrounded by thick taiga mountainous forests — has contributed to the rich biodiversity of its waters which have been referred to as “the Galapagos of Russia.” Out of the 2,000 species of flora and fauna that inhabit Lake Baikal, almost half are endemic to the lake.
Among them is the adorable nerpa seal, the only fresh water seal species in the world. Their existence in the lake has bewildered scientists since the lake is landlocked and located miles away from the ocean. Amazingly, an estimated 100,000 nerpa seals call Lake Baikal home.
The lake’s thriving marine life is in part thanks to hydrothermal vents inside the lake which act as entryways for cold water to enter cracks in the Earth’s crust, venturing toward the magma deep inside the surface.
When the water reemerges through the vents, it is much hotter after its contact with the magma, and brings the ground’s rich minerals along with it. Hydrothermal vents are typically found under the ocean which makes Lake Baikal one of the only lakes in the world with this natural feature.
The lake boasts high-levels of oxygen — even at its depths — which helps microorganisms filter the water and keep it pristine. The abundant oxygen in the lake’s water also helps wildlife flourish unlike any other place on Earth. The amphipod species found in Lake Baikal, for example, are much larger than those found outside the lake, likely due to its uber-healthy underwater environment.
Because it’s so ancient, Lake Baikal has become useful for scientists in their research of ancient flora and fauna that used to inhabit the lake’s grounds. By examining pollen trapped inside the lake’s sediment, scientists are able to discover the types of plants that lived on Earth over 10,000 years ago. Countless fossils have been uncovered at Lake Baikal, from ancient sponges to land mammals that roamed the Earth a long time ago.
Lake Baikal’s Turquoise Ice
The lake holds around 5,518 cubic miles (or 23,000 cubic kilometers) of water which is more than the amount of water contained in all of North America’s great lakes combined.
But the water beneath is incredibly difficult to reach, however, since the lake is covered by an ice sheet that can measure more than 80 inches thick. This protective layer blankets the lake for five months out of the year beginning in January.
In fact, the ice bed can become so thick that vehicles have no issues driving on the frozen lake and every year the annual Baikal Ice Marathon is held on its rock-hard surface, where runners from around the globe come to participate in one of the world’s most extreme tests of endurance.
Lake Baikal’s healthy waters give off a turquoise gem-like color when it freezes into ice, making it a sight to behold. As Russian photographer Alexey Trofimov puts it, Lake Baikal is like a “gem that does not need to be cut.” Not only does the water form into ice, it also creates unique shard-like structures on its surface called “hummocks.”
These hummocks are essentially ice splinters that form when the heavy winds around the lake push the waters into waves which then freeze into these turquoise blocks. These ice splinters can get form as high as 32 to 39 feet.
The natural beauty of Lake Baikal, often referred to by locals as “sacred sea,” has captured the spirits of many who visit the lake, which has unsurprisingly become a religious icon of sorts for believers and pilgrims of different religions.
Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island — the third-largest lake island in the world and the largest island that sits in the middle of Baikal’s watrs — are sacred places to the Indigenous Buryat people. Their religious totems covered in colorful ribbons can be found scattered all over the island.
A World Wonder Threatened By Climate Change And Overfishing
Unfortunately, like all natural wonders on this Earth, Lake Baikal’s survival is under threat due to climate change and environmentally-harmful activities by human beings.
A warming planet has given way to unnatural weather at the lake. Its temperature has risen by more than 1.2 degrees Celsius over the last century and are expected to be 4.5 degrees warmer than it is now by the year 2100. The warmer temperature means that the water’s oxygen levels will become more depleted and its ice caps will melt quicker, endangering the livelihood of its wildlife, such as the native nerpa seals.
Besides warmer waters, climate change has also caused algal blooms in the lake. These huge growths of algae are toxic to marine life and, if not brought under control, could pose irreversible damage to the lake’s entire ecosystem.
Some locals believe that the increasing number of tourists, particularly from China which is only a short plane ride away, that are visiting the lake is contributing to its deterioration. However, various news reports suggest overfishing done by locals and businesses around Lake Baikal is one of the biggest perpetrators of its rapid decline.
Legally, a person needs a license in order to fish at Lake Baikal, but enforcement of this law by Russian authorities is weak, particularly in the summer when hoards of people flock to catch fish at the lake. There is also a ban against fishing omul, a species of salmon only found in Lake Baikal, and strict quotas on catching nerpas, yet most restaurants near the lake serve them as delicacies on their menus.
Then, there is the environmentally-harmful activities done by these businesses. A 2018 report by The Daily Beast described frequent dumps of toxic waste by a local hotel which drained its waste water right into Lake Baikal’s pristine waters.
“Washing powder that contains phosphate is very dangerous for the lake’s species,” explained award-winning environmentalist Marina Rikhvanova, who is a senior ecologist from Irkutsk. “The pollution causes overwhelming growth of Spirogyra algae, which pushes out Baikal’s endemic sponge, the key cleaner of Baikal’s water, and destroys invertebrate organisms, the main food for Baikal’s fish.”
If the damages to Lake Baikal are human-made, certainly humans can prevent the damage from continuing as well.