The Sea That Was

The Aral Sea is a drainless salt lake in Central Asia, on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Until the middle of the 20th century, it was the fourth largest in the world, occupying about 68 thousand square kilometers; its length was 426 km, width — 284 km, and the greatest depth — 68 m; but since the 1960s, it has shallowed significantly due to water intake from the main feeding rivers of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya for irrigation.

A ship abandoned in the Aral Sea. Credit: Artem Asset (@aseevart) via Unsplash

In 1989, the lake split into two isolated reservoirs — the Northern (Small) and Southern (Large) Aral Sea. As of 2003, the Aral Sea is about a quarter the surface area and a tenth the volume of what it once was. In 2014, the eastern part of the Southern Aral Sea completely dried up, reaching that year the historical minimum surface area of 7,297 square kilometers. Temporarily overflowing in the spring of 2015 (up to 10,780 square kilometers), by the fall of 2015 its surface area had again decreased to 8,303 square kilometers.

There were once significant fluctuations in the level of the Aral Sea. So, on the receding bottom, the remains of trees that had grown in this place can be found. Nevertheless, since the beginning of systematic observations in the 19th century, the level of the Aral Sea has remained practically unchanged. In the 1930s, large-scale construction of irrigation canals began, which was especially intensified in the early 1960s. From 1960 to 1990, the area of irrigated land in Central Asia increased from 4.5 million to 7 million hectares. Water requirements in the national economy increased from 60 to 120 km3 per year, of which 90% falls on irrigation. Since 1961, the sea level has been decreasing at an increasing rate from 20 to 80−90 cm/year.

The climate in the Aral Sea area (above the former water area and within a radius of 50−100 km from it) has become more continental and arid, winters have become colder (by 1−3 degrees Celsius). A sandy-salt desert has formed on the site of the bottom of the retreating sea; with strong winds (which are observed in this region for 30−50 days a year), intense dust storms develop over the dried bottom, the dust plume reaches a length of 200−300 km, and, depending on the wind direction, reaches cities such as Kyzyl-Orda, Baikonur, Chelkar, and Nukus, appearing in the form of a whitish haze, which decreases the transparency of the air. Since salt deposits on the dried bottom contain large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (used in agriculture and washed from fields into rivers and then into the sea), inhaling such air can negatively affect the health of the people and animals in these regions.

Satellite image of the Aral Sea in March 2010. Credit: NASA / Jeff Schmaltz / Wikipedia Commons
Satellite image of the Aral Sea in March 2010. Credit: NASA / Jeff Schmaltz / Wikipedia Commons

As a result of shallowing, the salinity of the Aral Sea has increased greatly, which has caused the extinction of many species of flora and fauna adapted to lower salinity. The sea has lost its fishery importance. The ports of Aralsk, Muynak and Kazakhdarya lost their importance and were closed. Most experts do not see any ways to restore the entire sea level, except for the Soviet project to turn the Siberian rivers. In 2005, Kazakhstan built the Kokaral dam, which fenced off the Small Sea from the Big Sea. This has caused the waters of the Syr Darya to accumulate in the Small Sea, and the level here has increased, whilst the salinity has decreased.

In Karakalpakstan, Charzhou Abdirov, the Vice President of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan, has been doing a lot to improve the ecological situation for the population of the coastal areas of the Aral Sea. Since 1994, in addition to conducting medical research and organizing medical events, as a deputy of the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan, he has been heading the Committee on Environment and Nature Protection, and takingan active part in the preparation of legislative acts on environmental issues and solving the problems of the population of this region. Nevertheless, on the Uzbek side, the process of drying up of the sea is most active (the waters of the Amu Darya do not reach the sea).

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