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  Main arrow Travel Destinations arrow Lake Baikal & Lake Hovsgol, Mongolia  
 
Lake Baikal & Lake Hovsgol, Mongolia
Russia's Lake Baikal and a "Sister" Mongolian Lake Print
Dr. Clyde Goulden (center), Director of the Academy's Institute for Mongolian Biodiversity and Ecology, discusses sampling techniques with a pair of Japanese scientists aboard a Mongolian research vessel on Lake Hovsgol. Not only is the Institute becoming a repository of indispensable ecological information, it is also facilitating cooperative research efforts and helping teach a new generation the latest scientific techniques in environmental research.

 

 

 

Lake Baikal -- "Mother Baikal" to Russia's ancient Buddhist peoples, "Pearl of Siberia" to others who live near her -- is well known, both as sacred symbol and natural gem. Four thousand times older than North America's Great Lakes Baikal holds 22% of the world's available fresh water. If Baikal was empty and all of the planet's major rivers drained into her -- the Nile, Amazon, Mississippi, Danube, and numerous others combined -- it would take over a year for the lake to be filled. More than half of the species which inhabit Baikal are endemic, species which have evolved there and are found nowhere else in the world, including a freshwater seal. The problem is that the lake's environs are estimated to hold one-third of the planet's lumber and iron ore, and one-fifth of its silver and gold. To those who picture only the profusion of resources surrounding her, Baikal is seen more as a shell which holds riches meant for removal than a pearl to be treasured for the joy and beauty she gives.
In a new Russia struggling to overcome economic privation, one time-tested culture seeks to preserve all that Baikal stands for; another more desperate movement exerts pressure to exploit her potential for wealth. As in many such cash-starved developing nations, resource extraction and industrial development have taken place with little regard for environmental protection or sustainability, drastically affecting water quality -- and thus, life in the lake.
Three years ago, concern about such developments resulted in an unusual move: Scientists from the Academy were invited by Lama Tensing, a respected religious leader from Buryatia, to visit Siberia and offer advice.
One Academy team investigated Baikal and met with policymakers to discuss possible solutions, while another team led by Dr. Goulden conducted studies in the previously inaccessible land of Mongolia, several hundred kilometers to the south. Dr. Goulden's main focus quickly became Lake Hovsgol -- considered by many to be Baikal's baby sister - - a 140 kilometer long by 30 kilometer wide lake whose watershed is almost impossibly pristine.
While not as deep as Baikal (which reaches depths of over a mile!) Hovsgol is still impressive: In terms of water volume, she is the 14th largest lake in the world.
 

A crucial part of the research effort is precise determination of all sampling locations. In this photo, Enhtuvshin, a scientist from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, takes a reading from a global positioning system (GPS); such readings were taken and recorded at each scientific monitoring site.
A Natural Laboratory Unparalleled in the World
 

Dr. Clyde Goulden of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and Dr. B. Batjargal collect fish specimens in the shallows of Lake Hovsgol's eastern shore. A comprehensive inventory of the flora and fauna of the lake will be created by the joint American-Mongolian team.

"The tremendously exciting thing about Hovsgol," says Dr. Goulden, whose journey to Mongolia last summer was one of several he has made since that initial foray in 1994, "is that we believe it to be nearly as old as Baikal, and yet it is completely intact."
In contrast to Baikal -- which is dotted by fishing villages, cities, and coal-burning power plants -- Lake Hovsgol is extremely isolated. The predominant human population in the region consists of sheep-, cattle-, and reindeer-herding nomads. The largest settlement is Hatgal, a village of 4,000 with no running water or regular supply of electricity. What little oil there is reaches the village by truck; it is strictly rationed and restricted to winter- time use. Energy throughout the region comes primarily from burning wood and yak dung, while a single gasoline-powered boat ferries supplies along the length of the lake. The watershed has never been commercially fished.
"This is a pristine natural laboratory without parallel," explains Dr. Goulden. "We are incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to study such an ecosystem and its evolution, before any human development can have an effect. This is as close as we will ever come to being able to examine a completely unaltered lake." Before Dr. Goulden's studies began, virtually none of Hovsgol's biology, chemistry, or hydrology was known to the West.
Baikal, on the other hand, had been extensively studied and had long been subjected to serious environmental distress. Many of the Soviet factories along the shores of Baikal were built with little regard for pollution prevention -- adversely affecting water and air -- and commercial fishing has had a significant impact on the biology of the lake. A number of the old factories have been closed in recent years, but coal-burning electric facilities still operate without emission controls, and outmoded pulp and paper mills still release potentially harmful effluents into the water. As in the United States, acid mine drainage is another big problem, created by the emphasis on extraction of coal.
It is crucial to learn more about Mongolia's environment, especially that surrounding Hovsgol, believes Dr. Goulden, while there is still time.
Biology, Hydrology, and Geochemistry Combined
 

By studying the hydrology and water chemistry in the Hovsgol basin, scientists ultimately hope to learn how these factors affect the biology in the lake. Dr. Cully Hession (left) gathers samples while students record data.

Inexorably linked to Dr. Goulden's work on the biology of Hovsgol is a study which Dr. Cully Hession, Associate Curator at the Academy's Patrick Center for Environmental Research, initiated last summer with the help of a National Science Foundation Travel Planning Grant. Dr. Hession's area of expertise is hydrology and watershed dynamics. He traveled to Mongolia to meet with scientists from the MAS Informatics and Remote Sensing Center, the State Weather Institute, and other similar organizations in an effort to collect as much climate, water flow, and watershed-level data on the region as he could. He also traveled around Hovsgol to begin assessing the flow dynamics of its watershed and to start collecting samples of the inputs from rivers and streams.
"Before you can understand anything about a lake system, you need to understand the hydrology," Dr. Hession explains. "Residence time is very important: Stream flows, how much rain goes directly into the lake, how much run off there is, how much infiltration occurs in the different types of land." What Dr. Hession found during his preliminary investigations was that although Hovsgol has an extremely small watershed (it is estimated to be a mere 5,000 square kilometers, of which the surface area of the lake comprises a little over half), it is extremely complex. "There is permafrost, there are huge gravel beds, and the floodplains are riddled with bogs," he says. "There are places where you hear water running through the rocks underfoot and then it disappears. Later on, from underground, it flows into the lake."
Measuring such inputs is a difficult task under the most ideal conditions, but it can become tremendously complicated when subjected to events beyond anyone's control. The average annual precipitation in the Hovsgol region is about 13 inches, but in the five weeks that Dr. Hession's team was there, six inches of rain fell. "It was pretty exciting stuff for a hydrologist," he notes, "but it made our job more difficult and made the travel incredibly slow." Jeeps were constantly getting bogged down, and rivers swollen from heavy rains and snowmelt proved laborious to cross.

 

With only nine hundred kilometers of paved roads in the entire country, travel in Mongolia is arduous. Jeep tracks are often very primitive and can be easily flooded; vehicles and passengers spend a lot of time bogged in the mud.

Just as important as understanding flow dynamics is understanding the geochemistry of the water entering the lake. Hovsgol's eastern shore is predominantly volcanic, while in the West it is flanked by mountains formed by tectonic shift. These geological differences affect the chemical make-up of the waters which flow through these regions; different water chemistries, in turn, can have different biological effects.
Back in his laboratory in Philadelphia, Dr. David Velinsky, head of the Patrick Center's Chemistry Section, is currently examining water samples from Hovsgol to determine the chemical composition of water entering (Dr. Hession's river and stream samples), and already in (Dr. Goulden's lake samples) various parts of the lake. Data on the biogeochemical cycles of major metal ions and their associated anions -- and on the carbon and nutrient cycles -- will provide important linkages along the path to understanding Hovsgol's unique web of life.
"What we ultimately hope to learn," says Dr. Hession, "is how the hydrology and geochemistry affect the distribution of biota in the lake." The beauty of studying Hovsgol, he notes, is the unaltered nature of the lake, for instead of looking at a watershed after human impacts, this research offers the opportunity to understand the system as it was meant to work, unaffected by man. "Once we know how the system functions -- what the limiting factors are, for example -- we can do some modeling and predict what may happen if various changes occur. That type of information will help the people of the area manage the future use of their land."
Using Research from the Past and Present For Planning Ahead
 
Boldgiv Bazartseren (left) and B. Bud, graduate students from the University of Mongolia, collect shrimp-like amphipods from the shore of Lake Hovsgol. They are learning Western scientific techniques while assisting the Academy's research.
The Academy's research initiatives have laid the foundations for a number of valuable international liaisons -- relationships which will benefit the Mongolian people as they struggle to reconcile politics, new economic realities, cultural values, and environmental concerns. The knowledge gained from the collaborative research efforts will enable scientists to establish vital baselines to monitor environmental changes in this sensitive region, and, potentially, all over the world. And yet the effort goes even deeper than that.
The Academy's Institute of Mongolian Biodiversity and Ecology is not only becoming a valuable repository of information about the Hovsgol ecosystem, it is opening the doors to world-class scientific methodologies, training opportunities, and international exchange programs -- possibilities unheard of in the isolated Mongolia of a decade ago. While last summer's field efforts included Hatan and a pair of other students from the University of Mongolia, students from America's Clemson and Drexel Universities were also involved. Last spring, another pair of Mongolian students, Soninkhishig Nerqui (Sonja) and Boldgiv Bazartseren (Bold, spent four months at the Academy learning rigorous Western scientific techniques. Bold worked on classification of zooplankton (minute crustaceans) with Dr. Goulden, while Sonja studied the taxonomy of diatoms (single-celled algae) under the tutelage of Dr. Ruth Patrick, founder of the Environmental Research Division and recent recipient of the National Medal of Science, the country's highest scientific award. Training the scientists of the future means getting them involved in what is being discovered today.
"This education effort is an extremely important part of the Institute's mission," says Dr. Goulden, "and the exchange program offers students from Mongolia the chance to learn from the best in the field." Dr. Patrick, a pioneer in the field of aquatic research who has studied many of the world's major river systems, shares Dr. Goulden's enthusiasm for the Mongolian research program and for the chance to train others at her favorite site.
"I first came to the Academy when I was a graduate student studying diatoms," says Dr. Patrick, "because its diatom collection was one of the best in the world. Its fine research collections (which include fish, shells, birds, fossils, insects, and plants) attracted scholars from all over the world. That's a tradition which began when the Academy was founded in 1812, and which continues today." Specimens from the Mongolian studies will ultimately be added to the Academy's vast reservoir of materials from past and present expeditions to every part of the globe -- including those collected by such notables as Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark.

 

Dr. Clyde Goulden revels in the opportunity to make scientific and cultural discoveries and to share what he learns. In this photo, Dr. Goulden witnesses a Mongolian family's wonder as they examine a find.
"Besides learning about Hovsgol," says Dr. Goulden, "we have learned a great deal from the Mongolian people about the position mankind occupies in the world. Their attitude is that you are part of the environment; if you harm it, you are harming yourself. I hope that our research, combined with American experience and environmental technologies, can assist them as they begin developing their resources. I hope we can help train the future leaders of Mongolia and help them avoid making the mistakes we have made in the West."
That, ultimately, is what scientific research is about: Gathering data, testing theories, building upon what has been learned in the past. Good science often becomes lost in the transition to policy, but the centuries-old Mongolian perspective may be just what is needed to successfully apply prior knowledge to the task for the future.

 
 
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