Ask Baikal

Hi there! My name is Maxim Milyutin. I am based in Irkutsk, Russia's Siberia. Traveller, organiser of local travel talks, and owner of Irkutsk hostel. Travel for me is not necessary movement to some place far away from home, it's a state of soul. That's why I like to travel around my home region and and abroad as well. I'm happy to share my knowledge about Baikal with everybody! Feel free to ask me about Lake Baikal via the contact form Tatiana Baksheeva, our previous blog runner, remains with us as a contributor.

Overall, the health of Lake Baikal is probably very good, says Dr Anson W. Mackay

Dr Anson W. Mackay on the hill, overlooking Lake Baikal. Photo courtesy of Ewan Shilland.

Dr Anson W. Mackay on the hill, overlooking Lake Baikal. Photo courtesy of Ewan Shilland.

Hereby, we are really proud to present an exclusive interview done with Dr Anson W. Mackay, a professor at the Environmental Change Research Centre, Department of Geography at University College London, who shares his thoughts about Russia’s Lake Baikal and its environmental state.

In May of 2011, we were really lucky to have him giving us a like on the Ask Lake Baikal facebook page. Actually, we didn’t do anything to attract his attention. Dr. Mackay is a big admirer of Lake Baikal himself. Has been to the area many times and cares much of its ecology. In our turn, we do what we love to do. We share our passion for the world’s largest & deepest lake.

Our interaction with Dr Mackay started from Voice of Russia‘s live radio story dedicated to pollution in Lake Baikal. There was a live talk on air with Nikolai Yasinsky from the Russian Geographical Society and Dr. Anson W. Mackay. You can listen to it online here.

We had our own questions to the UK-based professor, who, thank God, was really kind to give us answers. Proceed to read the interview.

Baikal Archeological Project 2006, University of Alberta. Ile d'Olkhon.

– How would you evaluate an environmental state of Russia’s Lake Baikal?

Overall, I think that the health of Lake Baikal is probably very good. The volume of water is vast, and known pollution inputs relatively low. The Limnological Institute at Irkutsk have been undertaking regular monitoring of the lake, and as far as I am aware, have reported no major increases in pollutants.

However, there are serious threats to the ecosystem from e.g. mining in the catchment of the Selenga River, uncontrolled tourism and nutrient enrichment, forest fires etc. Moreover, monitoring of the lake I don’t think is comprehensive. Certain regions could act as early warning regions, such as the shallow waters off the Selenga Delta and the Maloe More.

– In your opinion, what is the main risk factor for Lake Baikal cleanness?

Probably unclean water entering the lake via the Selenga River. Population growth in the region needs to have proper sanitation, and I don’t know that this is happening. Also, there is very little information on agricultural pollution, and so impacts from nutrient enrichment, toxic organic compounds etc pose a real risk to the lake’s ecosystem if left unchecked.

Also, many mines in the Selenga region are not regulated or even registered, and discharge directly into Selenga tributaries and ground water. I don’t know if water quality research has been undertaken along the Selenga river to investigate these potential impacts.

Tourism is expected to increase dramatically in the coming decades, after the sharp decline because of the economic collapse 20 yrs ago. Unregulated increases in tourist facilities along e.g. the Maloe More pose pollution threats from untreated sewage into the shallow waters in that region.

Also, it should be remembered that the water in Baikal is only replaced every 400 years or so. So any pollution entering the lake today, some will remain for the next 400 years.

– I know that you’ve been at Lake Baikal several times. How may times? What places have you visited? What is your favourite place?

I first came to Lake Baikal in 1992, where I tested a new device especially designed to collect the top 10cms of mud from the bottom of the lake for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction. This was successful (just outside the harbour of Lystvianka) and I returned in 1993 for a 3 month stay in the region, including 1 month on board a research vessel on the lake.

I have since been back to Lake Baikal about 10 times of the last 19 years. My last time was too long ago, in 2006. During that trip I visited lakes (for environmental research) along the coast of lake Baikal (near Maloe More; these were salt lakes), Shara Nur on Olkhon Island, and a small alpine lake in the eastern Sayan Mountains, just to the north of Hovsgol.

Not sure I have a favourite place – but I think being on the lake during March, when it is frozen is the best time. We stayed in some kunks at the edge of the frozen lake for c. 2 weeks, and about 20-30 other scientists were also working there on a neutrino telescope, so it was quite an extraordinary environment to be living in.

– Do you think there are conditions for developing environmental tourism at Lake Baikal?

I think that building tourism round an environmental framework would be ideal. Foreign tourists would certainly come in their thousands to visit an Buy naprelan online ecoregion, undertake physical challenges around the lake etc. As would many Russians too.

– Please, tell some facts from your biography.

I am currently a Reader (or Associate Professor) at UCL, one of the worlds leading multi-faculty universities. My research is focussed on freshwater environments, especially central Asia, but also subtropical Africa. I specialise in the use of diatoms (unicellular algae encased in silica) to reconstruct past environments, especially human impact and climate change. I have published about 70 peer-reviewed scientific articles, many on Lake Baikal.

– And also please share what was your first impression about Lake Baikal?

Astonishment that such an environment could exist in one of the most remote regions of the world. But I was only 25 when I first visited Russia, and the people of Irkutsk made an equally big impression on me, especially their determination to carry on with their scientific research despite difficult conditions.

– Why do non-Baikal residents should care much of Russia’s Lake Baikal?

Because it is literally unique, and there are very ecosystems for which you can truly attach that label. Other deep lakes exist in e.g. East Africa, but none are oxygenated to the bottom sediments. So the biodiversity of animals and plants found in Baikal is really found nowhere else in the world.

– How can Lake Baikal affect the rest of the world, if it would be heavily polluted?

If Lake Baikal did become heavily polluted, then there would be several severe consequences. Baikal contains over 20% of the worlds resources of freshwater, and if this was to be polluted, then a major source of freshwater would be lost. The majority of the plants and animals living in the lake are found no where else in the world – so if they were to be stressed and die out, then there would be a massive loss to knowledge in terms of biodiversity, evolutionary history etc.

Regions of Lake Baikal, such as the Selenga Delta, are internationally important in terms of migratory birds, and has been designated as Ramsar site (i.e. has been given international recognition for this role).

Finally in terms of the goods and services that the lake provides to 100s of thousands of people (And possibly millions in the future), a decline in water quality will cause a decline in quality of life.

– What are your big findings after your 20-year research work in the area? Why Baikal? Not other water reserve?

In the last 20 years I have published over 30 papers on Lake Baikal.
During my initial research on Lake Baikal, collaboration was mainly between UK and Russian institutions. However, in my role as International Secretary of the Baikal International Centre for Ecological Research (BICER), I played a central role in bringing together a large network of over 15 research teams from around Europe and Russia to work on a major 4-year EU Framework 5 programme, investigating climate change impacts in central Asia. Many of these teams subsequently collaborated on a new research programme, investigating climate/human impacts on the Aral Sea.

Major research highlights include:

(i) the first scientific evidence to challenge the prevailing perception that Lake Baikal was being grossly polluted;

(ii) demonstration of tight coupling between slow-down of North Atlantic ocean circulation and central Asian climates during the last 12,000 years

(iii) the first empirical evidence for potential impacts of future climate change on the Lake Baikal ecosystem

I have worked on other water bodies, including several lakes in immediate region around Lake Baikal, lakes in China, the Tibetan Plateau, the Aral Sea (between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) and in tropical Africa (Uganda). I am currently also working on the Okavango Delta in Botswana, one of the worlds largest inland freshwater wetlands, again of international importance in terms of its biodiversity.

– What can we do to protect it? What will be your suggestions? Maybe, any real plans?

Regulate pollution entering the Selenga River is probably the biggest threat to the ecosystem. But much of the potential pollution probably comes from unregulated mining in northern Mongolia, so any protection of the lake will need international efforts.

Thank you, Dr Mackay, for your answers and time!

See more photographs of Lake Baikal in summer 2011.

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