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Lake Baikal: Let’s talk about the weather

by Bernard H. Wood on August 10, 2012

A frozen Lake BaikalIt’s taken a while on your Trans-Siberian experience to get to Lake Baikal. We discover it’s no ordinary lake: it has its own weather systems.

Trips and Tales (Part 78)

Using the term lake in conjunction with Baikal is something of a misnomer, as it implies vast water of sedate, swan-gliding tranquillity. Well, at least here in the UK. Not so with Baikal. Renowned for its stormy nature, it may be turbulent for half of each month throughout autumn, with perilously sudden extreme conditions turning the waters to a crashing blackness, foam-topped and angular. This is a huge contrast with the positively sleepy Black Sea, turbulent for perhaps only three days per month during the same period. Like most (all?) of out-doors Siberia, you really have to know what you are doing if you are going to expose yourself to it. It’s kitsch and as I have said before: “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

You see, the thing is big enough to have its own winds. No mean achievement. That’s winds, plural, I’ve read about a total of five, plus several more “breezes”. The most treacherous (in that it will kill you more) appears to be the “Sarma” wind, originating from the eponymously named river-valley. It has a propensity to swiftly appear, even out of dry, warm conditions, announced only by a pressure-drop and the formation of darkening cumulus and stratus clouds above the mountain-tops. Pretty soon you will be assaulted by a 40 metre per second (or greater) hurricane. Nasty. An unwary navigator may find his vessel or himself deposited elsewhere in the lake, each as one complete unit or in several pieces respectively.

Not surprisingly then it also has varying annual rainfall over it’s surface too, with nearly double (approx 500 ml) falling over the cooler South.

Warm, moist air striking Baikal’s cool surface, particularly during early summer can also cause frequent fog banks. Conversely, the advancing autumn creates a “frosty fog” as the evaporations from the relatively warmer water condense in the cold air. Sounds distinctly unpleasant. “Warmer” is of course a relative term as even in the summer, Baikal’s surface temperature rarely peaks around 16° C.

During the depths of winter, however; Baikal lies resplendent, gleaming in its primordial coat of ice. Even Baikal ice is remarkable. The purity and clarity of the water combined with the temperature-drop produces metre-thick ice sheets of clear glass, apparently suspending the cautious winter-lake trekker over black-green abyssal depths. Well, it is the world’s deepest lake after all. Also startling is the vocal nature of the ice as metres-wide crevices crack, cackle and boom into existence, whilst you jump out of your skin. As the temperature rises, the ice expands, re-sealing splits and folding ice up upon itself in glassy-blue stacks, metres-high. Excessive warming can even expand its amorphous reach 30 metres out of the lake, to playfully interact with whatever is waiting there: buildings, vehicles, anything, potentially casting ice-breakers up onto land in the process.

The living ice has another trick too, more artful though a little less dramatic. Churning January throws granular ice-pasta into existence, comprised of a mass of sculpted forms with individual components up to 2cm in diameter, all shifting at Baikal’s edges and waiting to freeze into granular froth! Madness! The play is over when the thaw comes and the spectacle disintegrates via rainbow-tinged splinters into clear liquid once again.

All of this to remind you that nature is much bigger than you, and you are a dot.

[Photo by Honza Soukup]


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