World’s deepest lake in peril, scientists warn

Above, a handout picture shows the shoreline of Lake Baikal covered by rotting Spirogyra algae, which some scientists say indicates that the lake can no longer absorb human pollution without consequence. (Russian Academy of Sciences’ Limnological Institute / AFP)
Updated 19 October 2017
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World’s deepest lake in peril, scientists warn

MOSCOW: Lake Baikal is undergoing its gravest crisis in recent history, experts say, as the government bans the catching of a signature fish that has lived in the world’s deepest lake for centuries but is now under threat.
Holding one-fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water, Baikal in Russia’s Siberia is a natural wonder of “exceptional value to evolutionary science” meriting its listing as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Baikal’s high biodiversity includes over 3,600 plant and animal species, most of which are endemic to the lake.
Over the past several years, however, the lake, a major international tourist attraction, has been crippled by a series of detrimental phenomena, some of which remain a mystery to scientists.
They include the disappearance of the omul fish, rapid growth of putrid algae and the death of endemic species of sponges across its vast 3.2 million-hectare (7.9 million-acre) area.
Starting in October, the government introduced a ban on all commercial fishing of omul, a species of the salmon family only found in Baikal, fearing “irreversible consequences for its population,” the Russian fisheries agency told AFP.
“The total biomass of omul in Baikal has more than halved since 15 years ago” from 25 million tons to just 10 million, the agency said.
Local fishery biologist Anatoly Mamontov said the decrease is likely caused by uncontrollable fish poaching, with extra pressure coming from the climate.
“Baikal water stock is tied to climate,” he said. “Now there is a drought, rivers grow shallow, there are less nutrients. Baikal’s surface heats up and omul does not like warm water.”
UNESCO last month “noted with concern that the ecosystem of the lake is reported to be under significant stress” and a decrease in fish stocks is just one observable effect.
The Baikal omul, a well-known specialty, was for centuries the main local source of food, eaten salted or smoked, and especially important given the region has no farming.
Another peril to the lake’s ecosystem is the explosion of algal blooms unnatural to Baikal with thick mats of rotting Spirogyra algae blanketing pristine sandy beaches, which some scientists say indicates that the lake can no longer absorb human pollution without consequence.
“I am 150 percent sure that the reason is the wastewater runoff” from towns without proper sewage treatment, particularly of phosphate-containing detergents, said Oleg Timoshkin, biologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Limnological Institute in Irkutsk.
Fifteen years ago, some of the lake’s picturesque villages had only two hours of electricity a day, but now improved power access means that “every babushka rents out rooms and has a washing machine,” he said.
Indeed the lake, which is 1,700 meters (5,580 feet) deep, and its tourism now provide a livelihood for many residents to replace fishing.
Foreign visitors often spend time at Baikal while doing a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway and in recent years more Chinese have been coming as Russia eased visa requirements.
Russians love the area, too, for its hiking trails, camping and spectacular scenery.
Timoshkin has traveled the length of Baikal testing for Spirogyra prevalence and said that in three critical zones near populated areas “the bottom does not look like Baikal anymore” and algae is pushing out oxygen-loving molluscs and crustaceans.
Near the town of Listvyanka, the tourist hub closest to regional center Irkutsk, “there used to be underwater forests of sponges 15 years ago, now they are all dead,” Timoshkin said.
Last year, Timoshkin tested 170 types of sponges throughout Baikal’s coast, and “only 11 percent looked healthy,” he said. “When you take a dead sponge to the surface it smells like a corpse.”
If dumping polluted water into the lake doesn’t stop, “shallow coastal zones will change severely,” he said, calling for a ban on phosphate-containing substances in the region and building “the best sewage treatment plants in Russia.”
President Vladimir Putin in August complained of “extremely high pollution” while visiting Lake Baikal, calling its preservation a “government priority.”
A special 1999 law in Russia spells out protection measures for Lake Baikal. The government is also putting 26 billion into a cleanup program, which started in 2012, to fund treatment facilities, though local experts say much of the money gets wasted.
In one town, Babushkin, on Baikal’s shore, millions of dollars were spent on a brand new treatment plant but bacteria meant to purify the water fail to work in the Siberian winter, local media said.
“As usual, the strictness of our laws is compensated by the fact that following them is optional,” said Buryatia-based ecologist Sergei Shapkhayev. “Money is being allocated but it gets stolen.”
Science funding has also grown thin at a time when studying Baikal is most vital, both Timoshkin and Mamontov said. “How can you cut funding during a crisis?” Timoshkin asked.
“That’s like firing epidemiologists during a smallpox outbreak.”


Twin brothers reunited 74 years after WWII death at Normandy

Family members lay flowers on the casket of WWII US Navy sailor Julius Pieper during a reburial service at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. (AP)
Updated 19 June 2018
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Twin brothers reunited 74 years after WWII death at Normandy

  • The story of how the twins died and were being reunited reflects the daily courage of troops on a mission to save the world from the Nazis and the tenacity of today’s military to ensure that no soldier goes unaccounted for
  • "They are finally together again, side by side, where they should be,”

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France: For decades, he was known only as Unknown X-9352 at a World War II American cemetery in Belgium where he was interred.
Today, he has recovered his identity — and was being reunited with his twin brother in Normandy, where the two Navy men died together when their ship shattered on an underwater mine while trying to reach the blood-soaked D-Day beaches.
Julius Heinrich Otto “Henry” Pieper and Ludwig Julius Wilhelm “Louie” Pieper, two 19-year-olds from Esmond, South Dakota, will rest in peace side-by-side later Tuesday at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France, 74 years after their deaths on June 19, 1944.
While Louie’s body was soon found, identified and laid to rest, his brother’s remains were only recovered in 1961 by French salvage divers and not identified until 2017.
They will be the 45th pair of brothers at the cemetery, three of them memorialized on the Walls of the Missing at the cemetery. But the Piepers will be the only set of twins among the more than 9,380 graves, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Julius, radioman second class like his brother, was being buried with full military honors at the cemetery, an immaculate field of crosses and stars of David. The site overlooks the English Channel and Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the Normandy landing beaches of Operation Overlord, the first step in breaching Hitler’s stranglehold on France and Europe. Family members were in attendance.

Twin brothers Julius Pieper, left, and Ludwig Pieper in their US Navy uniforms.
Twin brothers Julius Pieper, left, and Ludwig Pieper in their US Navy uniforms. (AP)

“They are finally together again, side by side, where they should be,” said their niece, Susan Lawrence, 56, of California.
“They were always together. They were the best of friends,” said Lawrence. “Mom told me a story one time when one of the twins had gotten hurt on the job and the other twin had gotten hurt on the job, same day and almost the same time.”
The story of how the twins died and were being reunited reflects the daily courage of troops on a mission to save the world from the Nazis and the tenacity of today’s military to ensure that no soldier goes unaccounted for.
The Pieper twins, born of German immigrant parents, worked together for Burlington Railroad and enlisted together in the Navy. Both were radio operators and both were on the same unwieldy flat-bottom boat, Landing Ship Tank Number 523 (LST-523), making the Channel crossing from Falmouth, England, to Utah Beach 13 days after the June 6 D-Day landings.
The LST-523 mission was to deliver supplies at the Normandy beachhead and remove the wounded. It never got there.
The vessel struck an underwater mine and sank off the coast. Of the 145 Navy crew members, 117 were found perished. Survivors’ accounts speak of a major storm on the Channel with pitched waves that tossed the boat mercilessly before the explosion that shattered the vessel.
Louie’s body was laid to rest in what now is the Normandy American Cemetery. But the remains of Julius were only recovered in 1961 by French divers who found them in the vessel’s radio room. He was interred as an “Unknown” at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Neuville, Belgium, also devoted to the fallen of World War II, in the region that saw the bloody Battle of the Bulge.
Julius’ remains might have stayed among those of 13 other troops from the doomed LST-523 still resting unidentified at the Ardennes cemetery. But in 2017, a US agency that tracks missing combatants using witness accounts and DNA testing identified him.
The Pieper family asked that Louie’s grave in Normandy be relocated to make room for his twin brother at his side.
The last time the United States buried a soldier who fought in World War II was in 2005, at the Ardennes American Cemetery, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.