"The Lake Baikal rift system is a modern analogue for formation of ancient Atlantic-type continental margins. It tells us the first chapter in the story of how continents separate and ultimately develop into ocean basins like the Atlantic Ocean."
The special environmental and geological settings of Lake Baikal provide unparalleled opportunities for research and for international cooperation.
Understanding the origin of the Lake Baikal rift contributes to understanding one of the fundamental phenomena by which the history of the Earth is reconstructed.
Continental rifts, like the Lake Baikal rift, and their end products, such as passive continental margins like the east coast of the United States, are ubiquitous in the Earth's geologic record. They contain information from which a significant amount of the Earth's history has been interpreted. Due to their high sedimentation rates, large rift lakes like Lake Baikal have great potential for providing high-resolution information about both tectonic and climatic change. Significantly, sedimentary deposits of continental rifts are also associated with many of the Earth's hydrocarbon and mineral deposits.
USGS and Russian cooperative studies have begun to resolve the three-dimensional geometry of the Lake Baikal rift.
Unique characteristics of the Lake Baikal environment combine to produce an especially promising site for studies of climate history.
The high latitude of Lake Baikal makes it particularly sensitive to climatic variations.Climate variations, including those resulting from atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide, are more pronounced at higher latitudes. Although the lake contains a record of glaciation of surrounding mountains in its sediments, it is unique among large, high-latitude lakes in that its sediments have not been scoured by overriding continental ice sheets.
United States and Russian studies of sediment cores taken from Lake Baikal provide a detailed record of climatic variation over the past 250,000 years.
Much attention is focused on numerical models of climate change but there have been few means for reliably testing or modifying boundary conditions of general circulation models. Studies of sedimentary environments in Lake Baikal provide important opportunities to establish ground truth for general circulation models. Very little data exist for long-term climate change from continental interiors; most of the data record derives from the marine or maritime environments. Finally, studies of past environments contribute to understanding the extent to which human activity affects natural conditions in the lake.
Seismic and sediment core analyses are used to fix future drilling sites in Lake Baikal.
Ice-based drilling operations begun in early 1993 are providing longer (over 100 meters in length) cores of Baikal sediments. Analyses of these cores are expected to reveal the climatic, environmental, and geological history of the region as far back as 5 million years. Seismic data will be tied to cores and drill samples to estimate rates of climate change and to map the history of the lake and rift. Very deep drilling in Lake Baikal remains technologically challenging; therefore, the deepest deposits of the rift are not likely to be sampled soon. However, the potentially very long record of sedimentation in Lake Baikal provides unique opportunities to understand the Cenozoic climate history of the Earth and to describe how continents begin to break apart, giving rise to new ocean basins.
U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
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