Sea, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan
|Earth's Natural Wonders in
size of Aral Sea: 26,250 square
miles (42, 236 sq. km.)
of sea: 6,560 square miles (10,560
sea 174 feet (53 m)
fishing boats Aral Sea.
||Once a huge saline lake, the
waters of the Aral Sea have been
drained for agricultural use,
creating one of the world's worst
ecological and human disasters.
This lake was once half the size
of California, and its water fueled
ancient civilizations and provided
watering spots on the Silk Route
from China. 
The Aral Sea is a landlocked
endorheic basin in Central Asia; it
lies between Kazakhstan (Aktobe and
Kyzylorda provinces) in the north
and Karakalpakstan, an autonomous
region of Uzbekistan, in the south.
The name roughly translates as "Sea
of Islands", referring to more
than 1,500 islands of one hectare
or more that once dotted its waters.
There are now three lakes in the Aral
Basin: the North Aral Sea and the
eastern and western basins of the
South Aral Sea.
Once the world's fourth-largest
inland saline body of water with an
area of 68,000 km2, the Aral Sea has
been steadily shrinking since the
1960s, after the rivers Amu Darya
and Syr Darya that fed it were diverted
by Soviet Union irrigation projects.
By 2004, the sea had shrunk to 25%
of its original surface area, and
a nearly fivefold increase in salinity
had killed most of its natural flora
and fauna. By 2007 it had declined
to 10% of its original size, splitting
into three separate lakes, two of
which are too salty to support fish.
The once prosperous fishing industry
has been virtually destroyed, and
former fishing towns along the original
shores have become ship graveyards.
With this collapse has come unemployment
and economic hardship.
The Aral Sea is also
heavily polluted, largely as the result
of weapons testing, industrial projects,
pesticides and fertilizer runoff.
Wind-blown salt from the dried seabed
damages crops and polluted drinking
water and salt- and dust-laden air
cause serious public health problems
in the Aral Sea region. The retreat
of the sea has reportedly also caused
local climate change, with summers
becoming hotter and drier, and winters
colder and longer.
The plight of the Aral
Sea is frequently described as an
environmental catastrophe. There is
now an ongoing effort in Kazakhstan
to save and replenish what remains
of the northern part of the Aral Sea
(the Small Aral). A dam project completed
in 2005 has raised the water level
of this lake by two metres. Salinity
has dropped, and fish are again found
in sufficient numbers for some fishing
to be viable. The outlook for the
far larger southern part of the sea
(the Large Aral) remains bleak.
In 1918, the Soviet government decided
that the two rivers that fed the Aral
Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and
the Syr Darya in the northeast, would
be diverted to irrigate the desert,
in order to attempt to grow rice,
melons, cereals, and cotton. This
was part of the Soviet plan for cotton,
or "white gold", to become
a major export. This did eventually
end up becoming the case, and today
Uzbekistan is one of the world's largest
exporters of cotton.
The construction of
irrigation canals began on a large
scale in the 1940s. Many of the canals
were poorly built, allowing water
to leak or evaporate. From the Qaraqum
Canal, the largest in Central Asia,
perhaps 30 to 75% of the water went
to waste. Today only 12% of Uzbekistan's
irrigation canal length is waterproofed.
By 1960, between 20
and 60 cubic kilometers of water were
going each year to the land instead
of the sea. Most of the sea's water
supply had been diverted, and in the
1960s the Aral Sea began to shrink.
From 1961 to 1970, the Aral's sea
level fell at an average of 20 cm
a year; in the 1970s, the average
rate nearly tripled to 50–60
cm per year, and by the 1980s it continued
to drop, now with a mean of 80–90
cm each year. The rate of water usage
for irrigation continued to increase:
the amount of water taken from the
rivers doubled between 1960 and 2000,
and cotton production nearly doubled
in the same period.
The Aral Sea fishing
industry, which in its heyday had
employed some 40,000 and reportedly
produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union's
entire fish catch, essentially disappeared;
so did the muskrat trapping in the
deltas of Amu Darya and Syr Darya,
which used to yield as much as 500,000
muskrat pelts a year.
The disappearance of
the lake was no surprise to the Soviets;
they expected it to happen long before.
As early as in 1964, Aleksandr Asarin
at the Hydroproject Institute pointed
out that the lake was doomed explaining,
"It was part of the five-year
plans, approved by the council of
ministers and the Politburo. Nobody
on a lower level would dare to say
a word contradicting those plans,
even if it was the fate of the Aral
The reaction to the
predictions varied. Some Soviet experts
apparently considered the Aral to
be "nature's error", and
a Soviet engineer said in 1968 that
"it is obvious to everyone that
the evaporation of the Aral Sea is
inevitable." On the other hand,
starting in the 1960s, a large scale
project was proposed to redirect part
of the flow of the rivers of the Ob
basin to Central Asia over a gigantic
canal system. Refilling of the Aral
Sea was considered as one of the project's
main goals. However, due to its staggering
costs and the negative public opinion
in Russia proper, the federal authorities
abandoned the project by 1986.
The Syr Darya, historically
known as the Jaxartes, begins in the
Tien Shan Mountain Range in Kazakstan
and travels 1370 miles to the Aral.
Because it is a closed system, the
Aral Sea historically has a good indicator
of global changes. Since the Pliocene
Epoch (more than 2 million years),
the Aral depression has been repeatedly
flooded and desiccated (dried up).
During cooling/glacial periods, the
Aral Sea decreased in size because
water was tied up in glaciers. During
periods of global warming (inter-glacial
periods), glaciers melted, and the
volume of the Aral Sea increased.
The Aral Sea has always been in a
state of flux because of its sensitivity
to natural changes in the global environment.
June 2007 For decades,
the Aral Sea has been described as
dying and beyond salvation. But now,
the water is flowing back, bringing
economic revival and hope for the
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