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The Aral Sea

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Satellite images of the Aral Sea in 1989 and again in 2003, courtesy of NASA.

When Nikita Khrushchev1 faced off with President John F Kennedy in the early 1960s2 there was a great inland sea on the southeastern flank of Russia where fishing trawlers plied their trade, hopping from island to island across a 145-mile (234km) wide expanse of water. In 2012 it was only a tenth of that size, and split into smaller components, some of which are gone entirely.

What Is It?

The Aral Sea is a grouping of several bodies of water in the nations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Once this was the fourth largest lake in the world. According to a 1911 encyclopedia3   its current name comes from the Kirghiz: Aral-denghiz, or Sea of Islands, as before it began drying out there were many islands in the Aral Sea. Located at 43°30' to 46°50'N latitude and between 58° and 62°E longitude, it was known to the ancient world as the Sea of Kharezm. Like the Great Salt Lake in Utah, or the Dead Sea in Israel, water flowed into the Aral Sea but none flowed out.

During the 1960s when it was part of the Soviet Union it had an area of 25,659 square miles (66,456km sq) and a maximum depth of 223 feet (68m) although most of this inland sea was shallow. It is surrounded by the Rocky Plateau of Ustyurt on the west, the Steppes of Kazakhstan on the north, the alluvial plain of Khiva on the south, and on the east by desert.

Since ancient times the snow melt from the Pamir Mountains and the Tian Shan Mountains had flowed through Asia into the Aral Sea, flowing in via two rivers. The Amu Darya flows in from the south and the Syr Darya from the east. At one point the salinity level was 1.7%, which is about half as salty as the Atlantic Ocean, and the Aral Sea was home to plenty of fish.

What Happened To It

Halfway through the 20th Century, the Soviet Union decided they wanted the water which would have gone into this lake for irrigation purposes4. As the volume of water decreased, the percentages of sea salt, fertilizer and pesticide increased.

As of 2012, it has lost 88% of its surface area, and 92% of its water. Efforts were made to reclaim the northern portion of the Aral Sea and a 13km-long dam was built, separating the water there from the more polluted counterpart in the south.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Pursuing bigger crop yields, a whole range of biodiversity was sacrificed. Back in the day, over 40,000 Uzbekistan fishermen caught up to 24 different species of fish including carp, perch, sturgeon, salmon, sheatfish, spike, bream, vobla and barbel. In 2012 all that was left was a few bullheads, sprats and salt-resistant varieties of flounder. By 2012 their fishing trawlers sat abandoned in the desert or were stripped to salvage their metal components. Their children go out and pick cotton – the very cotton that killed their fathers' industry.

The Uzbekistan government seem determined to continue the policy of diverting almost all the water to their cotton fields, while the lake bed there in this new stretch of desert can easily be turned into dust storms; storms that sometimes dump 100,000,000 tons of dust into the biosphere to turn up halfway around the globe.

Things are not quite as bleak on the North Aral Sea as they were. The city of Aralsk lies to the NE of the sea and was once a thriving seaport. In 2010 its fishermen had to commute 12.4 miles (20km) to reach the nearest arm of the North Aral Sea. The Kok-Aral dam – which cost the Kazakhstan government US$85.8m5 – has water levels starting to rise. Small numbers of fishing vessels have been brought back from open-air desert graves and are once more bringing in fish. Birds and wildlife are slowly returning to the area, but when, or if, the Aral Sea can once again attain the depth and extent it once had is anyone's guess. It certainly doesn't look like it will happen anytime soon.

This is not science fiction. These things really happened. Everything south of the dam now looks like a no-man's land which is now crossed by camels rather than ships. Mother Nature is resilient, however, perhaps more resilient than man. She will find an ecosystem to fit reality, even if it is radically different from the old one.

Satellite image of the Aral Sea, courtesy of NASA
1Leader of the USSR from 1955 until 1964.2Over the Cuban Missile Crisis.3The online 1911 Classic Encyclopedia is based on the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, first published in 1911.4Much like the United States did with the Colorado River, which once flowed into the Gulf of California region of Mexico.5The World Bank provided a loan of US$65m.

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