NASA Documents the Evaporation of the Aral Sea (2000-2009)

aral sea evaporation nasa photo

Photo: NASA
"Once the world's fourth-largest saline body of water with an area of 68,000 km^2"
The slow destruction of the Aral Sea is a great tragedy. It's really hard to grasp the scale of what is going on, but satellite photos are probably the closest we can come to seeing the big picture. NASA has been documenting changes in the size of the body of water between 2000 and 2009. Check out the bigger pictures below.

Year: 2000 Photo: NASA

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union undertook a major water diversion project on the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The region’s two major rivers, fed from snowmelt and precipitation in far-away mountains, were used to transform the desert into fields for cotton and other crops. Before the project, the two rivers left the mountains, cut northwest through the Kyzylkum Desert—the Syrdar’ya to the north and the Amudar’ya in parallel to the south—and finally pooled together in the lowest part of the desert basin. The lake they made, the Aral Sea, was once the fourth largest lake in the world.


Year: 2002 Photo: NASA

Year: 2004 Photo: NASA

The Southern Aral Sea had split into an eastern and a western lobe that remained tenuously connected at both ends.

By 2001, the southern connection had been severed, and the shallower eastern part retreated rapidly over the next several years. Especially large retreats in the eastern lobe of the Southern Sea appear to have occurred between 2005 and 2006, and again between 2007 and 2008. The final image in the series is from the spring of 2009. Blowing dust (salt-laden sediments) covers a large part of the sea.


Year: 2006 Photo: NASA
Possible Solutions?
Here are some of the solutions that have been suggested (via Wikipedia):

  • Improving the quality of irrigation canals;
  • Installing desalination plants;
  • Charging farmers to use the water from the rivers;
  • Using alternative cotton species that require less water;
  • Using fewer chemicals on the cotton;
  • Moving farming away from cotton;
  • Installing dams to fill the Aral Sea;
  • Redirecting water from the Volga, Ob and Irtysh rivers. This would restore the Aral Sea to its former size in 20–30 years at a cost of US$30–50 billion;
  • Pump and dilute sea water into the Aral Sea from the Caspian Sea via pipeline.
Year: 2009 Photo: NASA

Sad story, and I'm afraid there probably won't be a happy ending. Not anytime soon, anyway...

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