Environment

Aral Sea Is Drying Up

Once a sprawling oasis in the mostly arid Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea is now a fraction of its former self. Images captured by a NASA satellite show that the eastern basin of the South Aral Sea is now completely dry.

The two photos — one taken on Aug. 25, 2000, and the other taken on Aug. 19, 2014 — show the stark difference in the Aral Sea’s appearance. The once-extensive waters of the eastern lobe (shown in emerald green in the satellite photos) have disappeared.

Aral sea 2000

Aral sea 2014

The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, began shrinking after the Soviet Union started diverting water from two large rivers — the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya — in the 1950s and 1960s. Dams, canals and other structures changed the surrounding desert into farmland for cotton and other crops. But, without the rivers, the Aral Sea began to disappear.

Fisheries and communities that depended on the lake also began to collapse. As it shrank, the lake became saltier and absorbed more pollution from agricultural fertilizer and pesticides. Salty dust from the exposed lakebed became a public health hazard, which in turn increased water demand, as farmers required more water to flush the salt out of their crops. The loss of the lake is also affecting the climate, with the region experiencing colder winters and hotter and drier summers.