Lake Baikal, in Russia’s southeastern Siberia, is an immense, deep, coldwater terrain, shaped like a sideways exclamation mark without the dot. It shares significant superlatives with Lake Superior. Superior is the freshwater lake with the greatest surface area of any in the world, and Baikal is the freshwater lake with the greatest volume of water on the planet. In fact Lake Baikal holds more water than all the Great Lakes poured together, an estimated 20 percent of all the surface freshwater on the planet. (That does not include groundwater, atmospheric water, or, of course, the oceans, always salt water.) Baikal’s water adds up to an impressive 14,000 cubic miles (58,355 km3). All of this water lies in a lake “only” about as large as Switzerland. Baikal is just under 400 miles (645 km) long and between 20 and 50 miles (32 and 80 km) wide. Its coastline stretches 525 miles (845 km) along the western side and 640 miles (1,030 km) along its eastern shore.
Lake Baikal contains so much water in a basin that is less broad than Superior’s because it is so dramatically deep. This is the deepest lake in the world, about a mile down in several locations and almost that deep on average, since the sides of its basin plunge down so steeply. There are 200-foot (60-m) “drop-offs” near shore, and, even nearer, where it may be “only” 30 feet (9 m) deep, fairly large ships can approach conveniently close to the land. The lake’s maximum depth is 5,317 feet (1,637 m). To get some idea of the amount of freshwater in this lake, think about rivers for a moment. Ponder first the Amazon, which pours out enough water—every day—to equal the water usage of the whole United States. Picture Lake Baikal empty. Then turn on the faucet of the Amazon. Next, open the faucets of every other river and stream on the planet. Direct all this water to flow into Lake Baikal’s empty basin. It would take about a year to fill it up.
Cold and Wild Terrain
Lake Baikal is also dramatically cold. In winter parts of the lake can freeze to 33 feet (10 m) down, and spring moves slowly to melt this ice. Its watershed is mostly mountains, which add their load of cold snowmelt in springtime. More than 300 rivers, usually almost as chilly, pour into the lake. Rocky shores can be seen in the color insert on page C-3. In November Lake Baikal and its environs steadily freeze. The mountains north of the lake are already completely covered in snow. (NASA, Visible Earth) 50 G Lakes The area close to the lake is steep in most areas. The mountains surrounding Baikal are 4,600 to 6,000 feet (1,400 to 1,830 m) high, covered in forest. The rest of the shoreline includes deltas where the largest rivers enter (the Selenga, Kichera, and Angara), an area of rolling grassland called grassy “steppes,” two cities (Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude), and some towns. People have lived along this lake for at least 5,000 years, possibly for 9,000 years, hunting and fishing, long before the days of these cities.
Three national parks, each about the size of Yellowstone, lie near its edges, too, along with four other wilderness areas just as large. There are hot springs in places. The nearby forest is “taiga,” dark from all the northern evergreens, though lightened in places by stands of birch and aspen. Wild berries and mushrooms abound. The lake has been classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) because its unique characteristics are so worth preserving. Except on the south end (near Irkutsk and the Mongolian border), where logging and paper mills, along with some mining, have polluted the lake, Lake Baikal is very clean. In its northern expanses, people drink water directly from the lake.