Aral Sea’s Eastern Basin Has Dried Out, NASA Photos Show

September 30, 2014

“For the first time in modern history, the eastern basin of the South Aral Sea has completely dried.”

That’s the word from NASA, which has released images showing the progressive decline of the water levels in the Aral Sea, which straddles the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The space agency captured the striking photographs via its Terra satellite.

Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, the Aral Sea has been broken apart and drying out since the 1950s and ’60s, when the Soviet Union diverted two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, to provide irrigation for farms.

Another factor in this year’s decline, experts say, is a drop in rain and snow levels in the lake’s watershed.

The Aral Sea’s shrinkage has made headlines before — as in 2008, when Reuters reported it had been reduced by “70 percent in recent decades in what environmentalists describe as one of the worst man-made ecological disasters.”

Geographer Philip Micklin, an Aral Sea expert from Western Michigan University, tells NASA that this is “likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea.”

And as a NASA page about the Aral Sea notes, the desiccation has brought other problems with it:

“As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard.”

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