FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Vanishing of the Aral Sea

The Aral Sea has reached a new low, literally and figuratively. New satellite images from NASA show that, for the first time in its recorded history, its largest basin has completely dried up.

However, the Aral Sea has an interesting history – and as recently as 600-700 years ago it was as small, if not smaller, than today.

The Aral recovered from that setback to become the world’s fourth largest lake, but things might not be so easy this time round.

Today, more people than ever rely on irrigation from rivers that should instead flow into the sea, and the impact of irrigation is compounded by another new factor: climate change.

aral_sea_9_image_grid_woc_hw_preview

Really a lake – but now, a wasteland

Sandwiched between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea is actually a lake, albeit a salty, ‘terminal’ one. It is salty because evaporation of water from the lake surface is greater than the amount of water being replenishing through rivers flowing in.

It is terminal because there is no outflowing river. This makes the Aral Sea very sensitive to variations in its water balance caused either by climate or by humans.

Indeed, the sea has long been a cause celebre in the world of environmental catastrophes, an exemplar of the devastating harm that ill thought-out economic policies can have on the environment.

Intensive irrigation of cotton plantations in the deserts of the western Soviet Union prevented water reaching the Aral Sea, leading to the drastically low levels we see today. This in turn meant the highly-salty waters killed off many plants and animals.

During early Soviet Union times, the Aral Sea and its fringing wetlands were a significant resource for the fishing industries, agriculture, animal husbandry and fur trapping.

Six decades of profligate cotton irrigation

But in the 1950s, the extent of irrigated land used for ‘white gold’ (cotton) increased dramatically from 4 billion to 8 billion hectares, with Uzbekistan becoming one of the world’s largest cotton producers. To feed cotton’s insatiable demand for water, the Karakum Canal was built out of the desert sands and because it was unlined, water losses were extremely high.

During the late 1960s, the amount of water evaporating from the Aral Sea become greater than the amount of water entering the lake, so lake levels declined dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s. More than 75% of the surface area and more than 90% of the lake’s volume has been lost.

In 1987-1988, the lake split into two, and the Large and Small Aral Sea basins were created. International efforts have been made to protect the Small Aral Sea through the construction of dams, and this has meant that lake levels here have increased.

The Large Aral Sea continued to shrink and subsequently split itself into two basins; a deeper, smaller west Large Aral and a more shallow, but expansive, east Large Aral. And it is this latter basin which NASA images show had dried out completely this summer.

Toxic, salty dust storms causing disease and death

The environmental impact of the drying Aral has been devastating. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and hundreds of species have disappeared. Toxic metals and agrochemicals (herbicides, pesticides, insecticides), used to prevent disease and pests from lowering cotton yields, found their way into the sea through its rivers.

But because the Aral is a terminal lake, the pollutants were never washed out, and they instead sunk to the bottom sediments.

Now these bottom sediments are exposed to the air, they are blown up into the atmosphere as toxic, salty dust storms, which can spread for many hundreds of kilometres causing increased deaths and chronic disease, especially the young.

However, lower lake levels have also exposed ancient irrigation systems and mausoleums surrounded by settlements (some remains of which are still under water), built during the late Middle Ages. This means that in certain parts of the Aral, lake levels during 13th-14th century must have been lower.

We still aren’t sure exactly what caused such extreme regression, but a cooler, drier climate played a role. The 13th century Mongol invasion of central Asia also led to the Amu Dar’ya, one of two major rivers that feed the Aral, being diverted to the Caspian Sea. Clearly humans were a major factor in the Aral’s previous dry spell.

By the late 16th century, the Aral Sea started to fill up again, in part because irrigated channels meant the Amu Dar’ya once more flowed into the lake.

With climate change and continuing irrigation, water flows will cease

A key question that remains today therefore is how much of the lake’s current regression is due to intensive irrigation and how much may be due to climate change over the past 50 years. Recent studies suggest only 14% of the shrinking of the Aral Sea since the 1960s was caused by climate change, with irrigation by far the biggest culprit.

Researchers looking at what will happen to Aral Sea levels with global warming over the next few decades have combined several model predictions together and expect net water loss to increase as more evaporation leads to less river inflow.

However, if irrigation of the rivers continues, then net water loss will be even greater as river flow into the Aral Sea will essentially cease.

Climate change may be one of the world’s great problems but over-irrigation is at least possible to reverse with the right policy changes. But the two issues together make a disastrous combination.

The future for much of the Aral Sea does not look great.

Anson Mackay is Professor of Environmental Change at University College London. He received funding from INTAS between 2003-2005 to research water level change in the Aral Sea over recent millennia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation and the The Ecologist. Read the original article.

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
April 08, 2020
Melvin Goodman
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Body Politic
Eve Ottenberg
Amid Plague, Sanctions are Genocide
Vijay Prashad, Du Xiaojun – Weiyan Zhu
How China Learned About SARS-CoV-2 in the Weeks Before the Global Pandemic
Bill Quigley
Seven Disturbing Facts About COVID-19 in Louisiana
Joyce Nelson
BlackRock Takes Command
Geoff Dutton
Coronavirus as Metaphor: It’s Not Peanuts
Richard Moser
From Strike Wave to General Strike
Gary Leupp
Could COVID-19 Kill Capitalism?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
Corona, Capital and Class in Germany
Tom Crofton
Aspirational vs Pragmatic: Why My Radicalness is Getting More Radical
Steve Kelly
Montana Ballot Access Decision Suppresses Green Party Voters
Jacob Hornberger
Muhammad Ali’s Fight Against the Pentagon
Phil Mattera
The Rap Sheets of the Big Ventilator Producers
Manuel García, Jr.
Why Remdesivir and Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19?
Rick Baum
When “Moderate” Democrats Lead the Ticket and Win, Down-Ballot Candidates Soon Suffer Losses
Jake Johnston
Tens of Millions Will Be Pushed into Poverty Amid COVID-Induced Recession
Kim C. Domenico
Healthy and Unhealthy Fear in the Age of Coronavirus
John W. Whitehead
Draconian Lockdown Powers and Civil Liberties
Binoy Kampmark
University Bailouts, Funding and Coronavirus
Luke Ruediger
BLM Timber Sale Increases Fire Risk, Reduces Climate Resilience and Harms Recreation
John Kendall Hawkins
Slavoj Žižek’s Virulent Polemic Against Covid-19, and Stuff!
Nyla Ali Khan
Finding Meaning and Purpose in Adversity
April 07, 2020
Joel McCleary – Mark Medish
Paradigm Shift by Pandemic
Matt Smith
Amazon Retaliation: Workers Striking Back
Kenneth Surin
What The President Said (About The Plague)
Patrick Cockburn
The Chaotic Government Response to COVID-19 Resembles the Failures of 1914
Marshall Auerback
The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Opened the Curtains on the World’s Next Economic Model
Vijay Prashad, Paola Estrada, Ana Maldonado, and Zoe PC
Trump Sends Gun Boats to Venezuela While the World Partners to Fight a Deadly Pandemic
Jeremy Lent
Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What’s Next?
Dean Baker
The Big Hit: COVID-19 and the Economy
Nino Pagliccia
A Simple Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela: End All “Sanctions”
Colin Todhunter
Locked Down and Locking in the New Global Order
Robert Fisk
Biden Says He ‘Doesn’t Have Enough Information’ on Iran to Have a Vew. How Odd, He Negotiated the Nuclear Deal
Wim Laven
GOP’s Achievement is Now on Display
Binoy Kampmark
Boastful Pay Cuts: the Coronavirus Incentive
Dave Lindorff
It’s Spring and I’ve Turned 71 in a Pandemic-Induced Recession
Steve Brown
FLASH! Trump Just Endorsed Bernie’s Medicare-For-All Health Plan
Marc Haggerty
Class and COVID-19: Those Who Can and Those Who Can’t
Manuel García, Jr.
A Reply to Jeffrey St. Clair’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day”
George Wuerthner
How Fuel Breaks Fuel Fires
Marshall Sahlins
Election 2020
April 06, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 and the Failures of Capitalism
W. T. Whitney
Donald Trump, Capitalism, and Letting Them Die
Cesar Chelala
Cuba’s Promising Approach to Cancer
David A. Schultz
Camus and Kübler-Ross in a Time of COVID-19 and Trump
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail