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September 24, 2017

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Two women fight to save the world's deepest lake

BOLSHIYE KOTY, Russia -- The world's oldest, deepest and biggest freshwater lake is growing warmer, dirtier and more crowded.

Lyubov Izmestieva is charting these insidious changes. Marina Rikhvanova is fighting them. And the fate of one of the world's rarest ecosystems, a turquoise jewel set in the vast Siberian taiga, hangs in the balance.

For centuries Lake Baikal has inspired wonder and, more recently, impassioned defenders. With more fresh water than America's Great Lakes combined, and home to 1,500 species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, Baikal has been called the Sacred Sea, the Pearl of Siberia, the Galapagos of Russia.

But these pristine waters, well over a kilometer deep (a mile deep) in some places, are threatened by polluting factories, a uranium enrichment facility, timber harvesting and, increasingly, Earth's warming climate. The struggle has turned nasty, with Rikhvanova, an environmental activist, claiming the authorities even dragooned her own son into a violent attack on her group.

Tourists, most of them newly prosperous Russians, are flocking to the lake, filling the beaches, building vacation dachas and changing the lake's ecology. Resorts are opening. There are more fishermen, hunters and boaters.

The lake's significance goes far beyond Russia's borders; its size and fragility, say environmentalists, makes it a sort of test case for such bodies of fresh water around the world.

"Baikal is the greatest lake in the world. It is a limitless reserve and source for water that all of humanity can drink without any sort of purification," says Izmestieva, a third-generation biologist. "This is a priceless gift for everyone, whether you live in Bolshiye Koty or Florida...or Kansas."

Shimmering, crystalline waters lap at the hull of the boat named for Izmestieva's scientist grandfather, Mikhail Kozhov, as her colleagues sort plastic jugs and glass bottles and prepare for the day's work.

Lyudmila Ryabenka lowers a plate-sized disc into the rolling waves to measure transparency and quality. Then she winches a cone-shaped net deep into the lake to pull up phytoplankton — tiny plants that are an essential food source for many fish and shellfish. Later, she and another biologist use a glass cylinder to measure water temperature and collect animal plankton samples.

On the return to the ramshackle village of Bolshiye Koty, Ryabenka says the sampling is sometimes tedious. When the boat pitches or the Siberian winter winds howl, it's even harder. "We say that only romantics do this sort of work."

But every week to 10 days, four seasons a year, for more than 60 years, Izmestiva's family and their colleagues has kept at it.

Izmestiva, 56, the gruff-spoken director of Irkutsk State University's Scientific Research Institute of Biology, is the third generation in her family to do this work. Starting in 1945, her grandfather sailed out onto Baikal's waters — or trudged out on its ice — to take samples. When he died, Izmestieva's mother continued the work until her death in 2000. Izmestiva then took over.

Taking the samples became a family ritual, she says. "There's a kind of work that just has to be done whether you like it or not. ...And it's just worked out that we're the ones who have to do it."

The result has been a remarkable trove of data published in the U.S. journal Global Change Biology in an extraordinary paper that concluded Baikal is warming and its food web changing. That echoes other evidence of climate change, including thinning lake ice, arriving later and leaving earlier.

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