Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth-largest lake. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union began a massive irrigation project in what are now Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, diverting water from the rivers that feed the Aral Sea to irrigate farmland. As its water levels dropped, the lake began splitting into smaller pieces: the Northern (Small) Aral Sea and the Southern (Large) Aral Sea. The Southern Aral Sea further split into eastern and western lobes. The Earth Observatory’s World of Change: Evaporation of the Aral Sea feature tracks this process over the past decade.
This update shows that by August 2009, virtually nothing remained of the Southern Aral Sea’s eastern lobe. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this true-color image of the Aral Sea on August 16, 2009. Although the Northern Aral Sea (upper right) still appears healthy, the Southern Aral Sea consists of two isolated water bodies: an irregular oval shape directly southwest of the Northern Aral Sea, and the long, thin remainder of the Southern Aral Sea’s far western lobe. Although the faintest glimmers of blue-green appear in the eastern lobe, earth tones predominate, surrounded by a ghostly film of pale beige. Lake sediments from this depleted water body have provided ample material for frequent dust storms.
Much of what finally doomed the Southern Aral Sea was an attempt to save its neighbor to the north. In 2005, Kazakhstan built the Kok-Aral Dam between the lake’s northern and southern portions to preserve water levels in the north. The Northern Aral Sea actually exceeded expectations with the speed of its recovery, but the dam ended prospects for a recovery of the Southern Aral Sea, which some authorities already regarded as beyond help.
A Soviet-era plan to turn the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan into fertile cropland resulted in the near-total diversion of the water that once fed the Aral Sea. Prior to the scheme, two rivers—the Amudar’ya in the south and the Syrdar’ya in the north—flowed out of distant mountains and pooled in a desert basin in what is now southern Kazakhstan and northern Uzbekistan. The irrigation project began in the mid-1900s, and by 1960, the sea had already begun to dry out.