- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2008

TOURKA, Russia | Russian scientists will on Tuesday attempt to reach the bottom of the world’s deepest freshwater abyss in a bid to find unknown life forms as well as claim a new record.

“We want to study, observe Lake Baikal” in order to “preserve it,” said expedition leader Artur Chilingarov, a pro-Kremlin member of parliament who led a team of scientists that planted a Russian flag at the bottom of the North Pole in August last year.

Mr. Chilingarov, who boasts of enjoying the “full support” of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, spent Monday inspecting the mission’s ship, anchored at Tourka and carrying the Mir-1 and Mir-2 submarine pods that, weather permitting, will head for the 5,402-feet-deep bed of the lake, near Siberia’s southern borders with Mongolia and China.

On Sunday and on Monday morning, what locals affectionately call “the sea” actually looked more like a raging ocean, such were the high winds.

Three men in each pod will try to “reach the lowest point” of the giant lake, a U.N. World Heritage Site that contains about a fifth of the world’s freshwater reserves.

There are suggestions that it might be even deeper than previously thought. Intense water pressure means that previous expeditions have never gone below a quarter of its presumed depth. Mr. Chilingarov’s deputy, Anatoly Sagalevich, said the lake has “perhaps not been properly studied” given past measurements had to rely on pure mathematics alone.

But Mr. Sagalevich says tests have gone well, even if the weather made Sunday’s preparations “quite complicated.”

“We will drop at a rate of 30 yards per minute,” Mr. Sagalevich said. “Practically vertical. It will take in total between one hour and an hour and a quarter to complete the mission.

“The most important aspect will be visual observation,” he said, highlighting three special windows located at the front of the craft and a series of video and stills cameras attached to the pods.

They may not match the find of the crew in the movie “The Abyss,” but Mr. Sagalevich expects the mission to uncover previously unidentified species.

Aside from some of the world’s most unusual freshwater flora and fauna, samples taken in previous dives also suggest deposits of gases, notably methane, and even oil, which may be explored in follow-up experiments in the coming months.

“It will be a success if we can find something new for scientific research,” Mr. Sagalevich said.

However, he dismissed environment campaigners’ fears that the operation is intended to sniff out fresh energy reserves.

“We have enough gas and oil,” he said, pointing to the vast Siberian deposits all around.

In May 2006, Russian environmentalists heaved a collective sigh of relief when then-President Putin ordered a change in the route of a new oil pipeline to reduce the danger of it polluting one of the great ecological wonders of the world.

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