Valleys can be formed in various ways such as by erosion from the passage of water or ice but the world’s largest valleys are created by tectonic movements where the land mass is literally torn apart by immense forces leading eventually to the formation of new seas and continents. Such a “rift valley” has been formed in southern Siberia and this is the location of Lake Baikal which, by volume and depth, is the world’s largest lake.
It is around 626 kilometres long and 96 kilometres wide at its widest point and, by most people’s definitions, would appear to be more of an inland sea but remarkably, it is most definitely a freshwater lake. The water is in fact so free from salts that it can even be described as being potable. The clarity of the Lake Baikal waters is exceptional and it is often possible to see into the lake for a depth of 40 metres or more. Lake Baikal provides not only quality but also quantity and it is estimated that the lake contains around 19% of the unfrozen fresh water on the planet. The volume of water contained in this immense lake is larger than that of all of the North American Great Lakes combined. At 1,642 metres deep it is the world’s deepest freshwater lake and, having been formed around 25 million years ago, the oldest lake of its type. The origins of the lake’s name are uncertain but believed to be derived from local names such as Baykal or Baygal Nuvr translating as Great Water or Nature Lake.
This incredible location has been called “The Pearl of Russia” because of its beauty but there is much more to Lake Baikal than good looks. It is unique in many ways and unlike many large lakes, is teeming with life and exhibiting exceptional biodiversity. There are many endemic species of plants and animals some of which can be found nowhere else on earth. There are estimated to be over 1,000 species of plants and 2,500 species of animals to be found here including the Baikal freshwater seal. Its isolation has enabled species to evolve to the extent that Lake Baikal has now come to be regarded as the Galapagos of Russia. The importance of this region is widely acknowledged and the lake and its surrounding lands were given special protected status as the Lake Baikal Coastal Protection Zone in 1987 and its status was further enhanced when it received UNESCO World Heritage Site listing in 1996 due to offering: “The most outstanding example of a freshwater ecosystem, outstanding variety of endemic flora and fauna, offering exceptional value to evolutionary science and being surrounded by other protected areas of scenic and natural value.” UNESCO did however make reference to a possible source of pollution of the lake from a paper mill operating in the area at that time but the Russian authorities disputed this claim. The paper mill has since ceased operations to be replaced by the Russian Nature Reserves Expo Centre in 2013.
Lake Baikal Map
Locating Lake Baikal on a map should present no problems and it can be seen to lie to the north of the Mongolian Steppes between Buryatia and Irkutsk. On some maps it may bear the Russian name of Ozero Baykal or possibly the alternative spelling of Ozero Bajkal. The lake is fed by around 330 incoming streams and rivers and has a single outflow into the Angara River.
Where is Lake Baikal?
The lake is situated in the south-eastern part of the Russian region of Siberia, north of the border with Mongolia. It is encircled by mountains including the Baikal mountain range.
Is Lake Baikal a Freshwater Lake or an Inland Sea?
Although Baikal has in the past been referred to as a sea, most definitions now clearly put it in the category of a lake, albeit a very large one.
Is Lake Baikal the World’s Largest Lake?
It is certainly the deepest and it contains the greatest volume of water but, by surface area, it is the world’s 7th largest lake. The bed of the lake is covered by a very deep layer of sediment up to 7 kilometres deep in places.
Is Lake Baikal the World’s Oldest Lake?
At around 25 million years old, Lake Baikal is the oldest existing lake.
The History of Lake Baikal
There is evidence of human habitation in this region since ancient times and there are good reasons why this should be so. Although this may seem to be a very hostile and forbidding place, the lake provides a rich source of food. Winter temperatures reach a chilling average of minus 19 degrees Celsius but this is much warmer than the surrounding parts of Siberia due to the influence of such a large body of water which moderates the rates of temperature fluctuation. Transport links were greatly improved with the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway between 1896 and 1902 and this was a major feat of engineering around the Baikal area. The track around the south-west end of the lake required the construction of 200 bridges and 33 tunnels. The severity of Lake Baikal winters should never be underestimated particularly when the freezing winds sweep across the frozen lake surface. An ill-fated attempt to cross the frozen lake in the depths of winter occurred in 1920 as the retreating White Russian Army became victims of what came to be known as the Great Siberian Ice March. When crossing the lake, many perished in the freezing icy blasts with their bodies becoming frozen in place.
Lake Baikal Weather
Siberia is generally a cold place but around Lake Baikal the temperatures can be rather less extreme than in some nearby areas. The winter temperatures fall to an average of minus 19 degrees Celsius with summers averaging a balmy 14 degrees. The lake may usually appear placid but strong winds can cause violent storms and waves of a size not often encountered on a lake.
Lake Baikal Geology
The geology of Lake Baikal has been the subject of many studies and a great deal of information can be obtained such as by examining core samples from the lake sediment to chart ancient climatic conditions. The area is considered to be very seismically active and there are frequent earthquakes. The rift is currently widening at a rate of around 2 centimetres per year. The lake itself often shows sudden surges or water eruptions.
The Myths and Legends of Lake Baikal
All large lakes seem to have their share of myths and legends and Lake Baikal is no exception. Genghis Khan is reputed to have been born on the lake island of Olkhon and a popular tale purports that Jesus once visited these lands and declared the lands to the north to be blessed and those to the south to be cursed. This is a reason that it is considered that corn cannot be grown on these cursed lands. One of the most fascinating of these legends however concerns the lake’s famous monster.
The Lake Baikal Monster
Sightings of the lake’s monster, or monsters, seem to go back to the times when people first discovered the lake. Early Chinese explorers described seeing “Gods of the Lake” and “Dragon Fishes” and etched into the stones of the Baikal cliffs can be seen ancient drawings of the beast. The most commonly encountered images show it to have a long snout and an armour-plated back similar to some monstrous form of sturgeon (the fish not the Scottish politician!). The monster is usually known as Lusad-Khan or Usan-Lobson Khan (Water Dragon Master). There have been many modern sightings with fishermen reporting seeing the creature breaking the surface or being seen as a large moving shape beneath the water. One theory is that this may be some primeval fish species that has somehow survived and evaded detection or possibly a yet to be discovered species. Another suggestion is that it could be a very large sturgeon. The highly respected scientific publication “New Scientist” published some research work carried out in Lake Baikal and concluded that gigantism could possibly be attributed to the high levels of dissolved oxygen in the lake but admittedly the article was referring specifically to a type of giant shrimp.
Other Lake Baikal Mysteries: Aliens, UFOs etc.
Lake Baikal has also become a favourite location for those seeking proof of extraterrestrial life. There have been many strange and often unexplained events in this area. In 1958 a Russian TU-154 aircraft crashed into the waters of the lake which would normally be regarded as a tragic accident but witnesses to the incident reported that it was being pursued by a UFO at the time. In 1977 a deep water research vessel, the Paysis, was in the lake at a depth of 1200 metres when its lights failed plunging it into total darkness. An intense beam of light from an unknown source suddenly illuminated the craft for a few seconds. The source of this light has never been explained. Perhaps the most bizarre account is the report that a group of Navy divers encountered a number of humanoid creatures in the lake at a depth of around 50 metres. It is alleged that three of the divers lost their lives in this incident. There are also reports of strange occurrences above the water with many vessels disappearing in “Bermuda Triangle” style. The areas of Cape Ryty on the western shore and the island of Great Ushkany have such a reputation as does the island of Olkhon where it is said that a ferocious whirlpool sometimes appears taking down anyone or anything unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. Local legend regards this whirlpool as being a gateway to Hell. Such a disappearance occurred in 2011 when the pleasure boat “Yamaha” disappeared without trace. No signs of wreckage were ever found. There are other strange anomalies such as boats going missing for extended periods but their crews insisting that they had only been gone for a short time. There are also reports of strange sightings on the lake of things that could not possibly be there. These are usually simply dismissed as being mirages. Reports of strange lights on and in the lake are common with some witnesses reporting seeing lights descending from the sky and then floating on the water and others seeing lights below the water which then surface and head skyward.
Lake Baikal Ice
Lake Baikal is frozen for almost five months each year but, due to the moderating effect of such a large water mass, the freezing takes place later than in other neighbouring areas. The freezing of the lake surface usually begins in January, the average start date being the 9th. The freezing around the bays and shorelines begins around 10 to 30 days earlier. The ice melts from May to June at which time, rhododendrons come into bloom around the lake. Ice relief for the southern part of the lake usually occurs from 12th to 16th of May with the northern part being a little later being between 9th and 14th of June. For a period of 85 days, it is safe to drive over the frozen lake surface. There is a maintained ice road to Olkhon Island between February and March. For winter visitors, the ice is a major attraction. Some winter sports are possible but for many the sheer beauty of the ice makes the trip worthwhile. Blocks of turquoise coloured crystal clear ice can be seen on some parts of the lake shining like precious jewels and during the freezing phase waves of moving ice crystals can be seen forming natural sculptures on the shores.
Visiting Lake Baikal
The future of Lake Baikal is as a travel destination and visitor numbers are steadily increasing. Although far from being commercialised, some good quality hotel accommodation is available such as the Hotel Mayak at Listvyanka and there are many “Rest Bases” which are traditional wooden houses catering for visitors. The most popular destinations are Olkhov Island, Listvyanka, Baykatskiy, Kotelnikovsky Cape and Turka Village. The Adventure Coastline Track is a 100 kilometre trail and there are various national parks and nature reserves such as the Vitinski, Baikalo-Lensky, Baikalsky, Zabaykalsky, Barguzinsky and Dzherginsky reserves. The nearest airport is Irkutsk and from there, Baikal Lake can be reached by road or rail.
Other Lake Baikal Facts
Lake Baikal can of course be seen from space but in 2009 observers on the International Space Station noted large rings appearing on the frozen surface of the lake. These circles were up to 4.4 kilometres in diameter and had no obvious cause. Investigations showed them to have a completely natural cause as they were due to the presence of methane gas released from the lake floor. Exploration of the lake by the MIR diving vessels in 2008 discovered the existence of gas hydrates at the lake floor. This has never been found in any other freshwater lake. Vladimir Putin took an active part in the MIR dives and has also taken action to prevent an oil pipeline from running too close to this environmentally sensitive area. The lake is almost certainly not the home of any alien colony but beneath its waters can be found the Baikal Deep Underwater Neutrino Telescope which was built in 1998 and upgraded in 2005. Such telescopes may help to unravel some of the mysteries of the universe.
Lake Baikal is indeed a place of mystery and wonder but is above all one of the world’s most beautiful places.