To the Depths of the Great (Freshwater) Blue!

Obviously, the best part of summer is swimming. Lake swimming in particular. Nothing like floating around in the middle of a lake, imagining the many creatures and mythical monsters that are quietly going about their business right below you.

But if you’re swimming in Lake Baikal, over in Russia, you couldn’t possibly imagine all that exists beneath you. It’s the deepest lake in the world, dropping down about 5000 feet. This lake is so deep that although it’s only the 7th largest in terms of surface area, it holds about 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. Which, by the way, puts its volume way above that of Lake Superior. Which is surprising to me. Because I always thought that Lake Superior, being the largest lake on Earth*, would hold the most water. Or at least second most. But not so. And in terms of depth, Lake Superior doesn’t even make it onto a list of the top 20. Or even the top 30! Or 35! Our greatest Great Lake comes in at a disappointing 36th place.

Here’s Lake Baikal on a google map. It sits in southern Siberia, just north of Mongolia.

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 3.19.28 PM

And here’s a picture of it from space! Looks small, no?

*Photograph by SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

*Photograph by SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

Lake Baikal also happens to be the world’s oldest lake, formed about 25 million years ago. That’s a lot of time to develop a pretty cool ecosystem — with interesting fish and snails and thistles and other things. But maybe the coolest fauna/flora fact is that the lake has its very own species of seal. Here’s a picture of the Baikal Seal.

*Photograph by Per Harald Olsen

*Photograph by Per Harald Olsen

Like anything really old, Lake Baikal is probably haunted. At the very least, it’s the site of some chilling tales. Over the years, there have been countless weird sightings — UFOs, ghosts, all the usual paranormal fare. There’s also one particular patch of the lake that functions like a mini-Bermuda Triangle —  it disappears ships, it warps time. This Pravda article details some of the strange phenomena associated with this part of the lake. The author explains: “Locals claim that this is the opening of a chasm through which the souls of dead sinners go to hell.” Yikes!

Of course it’s not like the entire lake is a portal to hell. A few years ago, and a little south of the hell-chasm, Russian submariners descended to the depths of the lake, accompanied by no less a man than Vladimir Putin (during that stint he was shirtless everywhere and being very macho). They reported no signs of souls squirming in eternal distress. Nothing hellish at all, in fact. Just some murky waters. This telegraph article quotes Putin as saying, “The water, of course, is clean from an ecological point of view but in fact it’s a plankton soup, or so I called it.”

But the lake’s cleanliness has been threatened in recent years. Environmentalists are concerned that sustained pollution is causing an overgrowth of algae that’s slowly turning the lake into a swamp. You can read about that here. On the plus side, if Baikal officially becomes a bog, I suppose Lake Superior will inch its way up those lake rankings. Go Team Superior!

*Lake Superior is the world’s largest lake discounting the Caspian Sea, which is sometimes considered the largest lake, when it isn’t being considered a self-contained sea. 

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