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Aral Sea
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Aral Sea, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan
Deserted fishing boats in Moynaq, Uzbekistan. The Aral sea has dried up, and this once prosperous beach community is now about 150km away from the water.
Earth's Natural Wonders in Asia
Former size of Aral Sea: 26,250 square miles (42, 236 sq. km.)
Current size of sea: 6,560 square miles (10,560 sq. km.)
Elevation of sea 174 feet (53 m)
Deserted fishing boats Aral Sea.[4]
Aral Sea [5]
another view of what used to be the aral sea, the raised land to the left used to be the shore
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. [2]


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 Sea."

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.[1]

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. [3]

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 future.

You Tube Video

June 26, 2007


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1. Wikipedia-Aral Sea-retrieved 6/1/2009
2. 1,001 Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die 2005-p. 627- Michael Bright-retrieved 6/2/2009
3. http://visearth.ucsd.edu-retrieved 6/2/2009
4. Flickr-Deserted fishing boats Aral Sea-Creative Commons Attribution License-retrieved 7/12/2009
5. Flickr-Aral Sea- Creative Commons Attribution License-retrieved 7/12/2009
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