6 June 2009; update: 6 March 2013

Disappearing Aral Sea

In 2000, there were reports about the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea. Now, after 13 years there are improvements but also deterioration of its condition.

Old Aral Sea Map Aral Sea is actually an inland lake located east of Caspian Sea and covers about 68,000 sq.km area shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It was once the fourth-largest body of fresh water on the earth, with inflows from two rivers — Syr Darya north in Kazakhstan and Amu Darya south in Uzbekistan. Back before 1960 fishermen had enjoyed a busy life at the sea, Its water has been disappearing from early 1960s in the past Soviet Government to divert water to irrigate agricultural lands. In a few decades, as the water became salty and the salinity rose from 10 to 30 grams per litre and the fish disappeared. In the early 1980s, the fishing industry collapsed and the sea became a dessert dotted with ghostly hulks of ship wrecks. The sea is becoming the worst environmental catastrophe caused by man in history.

In 1987, the lake began to split into two — a small north part and a larger south part. In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up; Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan became two independent countries. Some restoration efforts of the sea were attempted with funding from the World Bank but brought only temporary results. By 2003, the South Aral Sea was further divided into two portions - western and eastern.

Source: National Geographic Society - 1990

In 2003, Kazakhstan started a serious restoration with the help from the World Bank to build a 13 km (eight mile) dam to rise the water levels of the North Aral Sea. The dam was completed in 2005. Right now, the salinity has dropped significantly to allow native fish to return.

Aral Sea 1989-2009
NASA Photos: Left - 1989, Right - 2008

Aral Sea 2010   Aral Sea 2012
Photos: Left - 2010                         Right - 2012

Meanwhile, the South Aral Sea is basically abandoned. In 2012, the eastern part was almost dried up. Uzbekistan has given up the sea and keeps to use the water of Amu Darya river to irrigate the cotton field. Uzbekistan is one of the major cotton producers in the world; and the government also intends to explore the dried sea for mineral and energy resources.

The drying of Aral Sea has brought havoc to local communities - with the displacement of population. The blown-up dry residues of fertilizers and pesticides leached into the sea are causing health problems to the remaining population. It also made the local climate noticeably harsher with alternating extreme temperatures — day to night and summer to winter. From satellite photos, the cloud patterns over the sea take the unusual shape of the water body might lead a clue if the water evaporation of the sea could contribute to the climate.

Reference: earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/aral_sea.php