Lake Baikal, The Sacred Sea of Siberia
World’s 3 most; largest, deepest and oldest lake
The largest reservoir of freshwater in the world, contains approximately 20% of the total unfrozen freshwater
Among the clearest of all lakes, epitomises unspoiled and unique nature
It hosts more than 1,000 species of plants and 2,500 species of animals. More than 80% of the animals are endemic.
Listed as a UNESCO natural world heritage site in 1996
Photo by: http://petr.juracka.eu
Since 2008 dramatic changes of the ecosystem have been reported. This deterioration of the environmental health is caused by eutrophication, a process in which the water is saturated by phosphates and nitrates of human origin causing abnormal proliferation of some algae, cyanobacteria and phytoplankton. In the last couple of years it has been reported that this bloom covered almost entirely the water surface in shallow areas and in some places reached depths up to 40m.
These changes have been very rapid and reported over a small amount of time: the last 3-5 years. Scientists call this dramatic situation a crisis that could affect the ecosystem irreversibly. The lake is turning into a swamp and many endemic species could be lost solely within this generation.
Settlements near shore rarely have a sewage treatment system often waste is dumped into the lake, releasing phosphates and nitrates, nutrients for algae and bacteria, directly into the water.
Phosphate-containing household detergents are still allowed in Russia, further aggravating the eutrophication issue.
Rising number of tourists visiting Baikal strain the ecosystem unwillingly even more. Increase in the tourist industry is not associated with the necessary infrastructure such as controlled waste disposal, not only in campsites but also from ships and boats on the lake.
The Plastic Problem
Plastic is one of the most widely used materials in the world. In 2013 its production reached 299 million tons per year. However, it is estimated that approximately 10% of produced plastic ends up in the oceans. Plastic pollution is an increasing environmental problem posing threat to marine systems where it has now spreading globally to even the most remote habitats.
A recent study estimated the amount of plastic debris accumulated in the oceans over time to 5.25 trillion plastic particles having a total weight of 268,940 tons (that is equivalent to the weight of ~1495 blue whales)
60% of the lake's coastline is covered in seaweed of the Spirogyra genera. Spirogyra fills the water volume, spoils beaches, rots and stinks on the shoreline. Moreover, some cyanobacteria produce resilient toxins that can be very dangerous for human health.
algea bloom threatens endemic species Spirogyra interferes with spawning of the Baikal yellowfin sculpin. This in turn has impact on the famous Baikal omul, the main source of fishing.
90% of Baikal sponges are affected by an unknown disease, and some are lost. Some sponges take over 200 year to grow a size of over a meter, but are now threatened and can die within one season. Toxins produced by cyanobacteria are probable cause of their rapid death.
Microplastics, particles less than 5mm in size, can be formed by fragmentation of larger plastic items or by industrial ‘scrubbers’ used to blast clean surfaces, plastic powders used in moulding, micro-beads in cosmetics, and plastic nanoparticles used in a variety of industrial processes.
The hazardous consequences of microplastic pollution in the marine environment are starting to be a cause of great concern. Microplastics have been shown to be ingested across the entire food web from marine invertebrates to mammals, with severe effects on the health of the organisms. Furthermore, pollutants can adhere to microplastic particles and leaching of toxins can occur.
Microplastics have been found not only in the oceans but also in fresh water, including in remote lakes.
Microplastic pollution poses a serious threat to the environment leading to social, economic and health repercussions. Extensive research is being done mapping the distribution of microplastic in marine environments but their distribution in fresh water reservoirs still remains relatively unknown.
Presence and distribution of plastic particles in Lake Baikal has not been previously investigated, therefore one of the scientific aims of our expedition was to evaluate the level of plastic contamination of the largest lake.
Microplastics from 1L of sediment.
Baztan et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin (2014)
Aims of the expedition
In July 2016 we set off to sail around the Lake Baikal to observe and document first hand the dramatic changes as well as to provide new insights into the ecological disaster that is threatening to occur in what used to be pristine waters. Specifically, we aimed to:
be the first expedition to dive around the entire circumference of Lake Baikal in a single voyage;
investigate and report on the environmental crisis of the lake to raise awareness on this issue;
set baseline data on plastic pollution to establish a preliminary evaluation of the conditions of this UNESCO world heritage site;
contribute to public available databases describing the distribution of plastics on a global scale;
be presented in talks, magazine, newspaper articles and a short film to raise awareness on plastic pollution.