"We want to study, observe Lake Baikal" in order to "preserve it," said expedition leader and famous Russian Arctic explorer, Artur Chilingarov, a pro-Kremlin member of parliament who led a team of scientists that planted a Russian flag at the bottom of the North Pole in August last year in the first-ever Arctic dive of the Mir mini-submarine.
Chilingarov, who boasts of enjoying the "full support" of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, spent Monday inspecting the mission's ship, anchored at Tourka and carrying the Mir-1 and Mir-2 submarine pods which, weather permitting, will head for the 1,637-meter (5,402 feet) bed of the lake, near Siberia's southern borders with Mongolia and China.
There are suggestions that it might be even deeper than previously thought. Intense water pressure has prevented previous expeditions have never gone below a quarter of its presumed depth. Chilingarov's deputy Anatoly Sagalevich said the lake has "perhaps not been properly studied" given past measurements had to rely on pure mathematics alone.
As the oldest, largest and deepest lake on planet Earth, ancient
Lake Baikal is known as the “grand dame” of all lakes. UNESCO declared
it a World Heritage due to its stunning bio-diversity. Most of its 2500
some odd plant and animal species, including the freshwater seal,
evolved in pristine isolation and are found nowhere else on the planet.
The Siberian lake contains an enormous 20 percent of the entire world's
freshwater, and is large enough to hold all the water in the Great
Lakes combined and then some. The lake has yielded many exciting
aquatic wonders and likely holds many more undiscovered marvels in its
incredibly deep waters. The 25 million year old lake predates the
emergence of humans, but its splendor may not outlive us.
Stephanie Hampton, the Deputy Director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis (NCEAS) who has been studying the lake shared with The Daily Galaxy what makes Baikal so exquisite.
“Lake Baikal probably the most beautiful place I've ever been - I'm thinking especially right now of the day I spent on Olkhon Island when the wildflowers were spectacular and the serenity was awe-inspiring. It is the world's most ancient lake with a proliferation of biodiversity that is breathtaking,” describes Hampton affectionately.
“Where I would usually see 2 species of a particular type of crustacean (amphipods, in this case), instead I see 344 species in all shapes and colors and sizes. Many of the unique fish in Baikal resemble deep-sea fishes rather than other freshwater fish that are more closely related to them - with big eyes and spindly bodies. Also, sponge forests are common. If you are surprised that I'm mentioning a sponge forest in a lake, it's for a good reason: they are not that common in lakes!” Hampton notes with enthusiasm, “So here you are in this incredibly cold lake at fairly high latitude, and underwater, this sponge forest looks more like the Caribbean than the subarctic! It is really like a freshwater Galapagos in the midst of Siberia.”
It doesn’t take much prodding to get information out of Hampton when it comes to the lake! Her abounding awe and reverence for one of Mother Nature’s most unique wonders is completely apparent. Unfortunately, according to Hampton and other experts, all this is about to change forever. Global warming has had a strong impact on the lake, and is threatening its incredibly unique life forms that evolved to live only in extreme cold. A multi-generational study involving careful and repeated sampling over six decades was recently reported in the journal Global Change Biology showing that the lake’s temperatures is rising dangerously fast. Hampton, who participated in the study, notes that the lake was expected to be among those most resistant to climate change, due to its tremendous volume and unique water circulation. But unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.
“So many organisms in and around Lake Baikal have evolved only in Lake Baikal, and they are very well-adapted to an extremely cold environment that is covered by ice for much of the year. More than half of the animals in Baikal are not found anywhere else! Lake Baikal has been around for 25 million years, so there has been plenty of time for organisms to evolve to its special environment - the warming associated with climate change is very abrupt, and it's not clear whether or how these special organisms can adapt to a rapidly warming lake,” Hampton explains.
Already there has been a rise in more common water organisms in the lake—a sight that does not bode well for the lakes original inhabitants.
Posted by Casey Kazan with Rebecca Sato.
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