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Scientists Search for Climate Clues in Siberian Lake

Lake Baikal, the world's oldest and largest lake in one of the coldest places on Earth, is said to be warming up.

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Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, is no ordinary body of water. More than 25 million years old, the lake people call the “Blue Eye of Siberia” is the world’s oldest, deepest and largest freshwater lake. It’s so remote that, like the Galapagos Islands, it’s become home to a multitude of unique species, most of which have evolved specifically to life in a Siberian lake, like its freshwater seal and a kind of fish that is reputed to melt in the sunshine.

But even the lake’s size and remote location can’t save it from global warming, as Russian and American scientists have found, and the shifting temperatures are only the beginning of a massive change that will affect creatures that live in and around the lake.

“Warming of this isolated but enormous lake is a clear signal that climate change has affected even the most remote corners of our planet,” said Stephanie Hampton, a scientist with UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, who, with co-author Marianne Moore, a Wellesley College biologist, recently reported their findings online in the journal Global Change Biology. The two-year study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The researchers used about 60 years of data collected by three generations of a family of Siberian scientists — a study that survived the Stalin regime and the many economic and political trials and tribulations of the former Soviet Union. Lyubov’ Izmest’eva, the latest in that family of Siberian researchers, was part of this team of scientists.

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The scientists were able to track a 1.21-degree Celsius (just over two degrees Fahrenheit) increase in temperature since 1947 — not much to us, but for an ecosystem adapted to temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s enough to reorganize Lake Baikal’s food web.

“There’s been an increase in the sorts of plankton that are warm-water species,” said Hampton.

Historically, the lake’s biggest period of productivity occurs around this time of year, when algal blooms flourish under a layer of ice.  But Baikal’s endemic cold-water algae are giving way to more blooms of common algae in the summer, leading to a major shift in the lake’s ecosystem.

And it’s not just the algae and algae eaters that will be feeling the change, if they aren’t already —  so could the lake’s largest predator, the nerpa, a freshwater seal that is said to have found its way into the lake eons ago when a sea passage connected Baikal to the Arctic. Nerpas use little ice caves on Lake Baikal to rear their young, and with the ice season shortening, the protection the baby seals get from the ice would likely decrease, as mothers move closer to land to pup.

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Baikal is not alone, the researchers conclude, as it joins other large lakes experiencing warming trends, like Lakes Tahoe and Superior in the United States and Tanganyika in central Africa.

“But temperature changes in Lake Baikal are particularly significant as an integrated signal of long-term regional warming, because this lake is expected to be among those most resistant to climate change due to its tremendous volume and unique water circulation,” they note.

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