In orbit above the semi-desert grasslands in Kazakhstan, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station spotted one of the few features that stand out. Lake Tengiz is the only large lake (1590 square kilometers, 615 square miles) in northern Kazakhstan. Through white wisps of cloud, the crew member photographed the 50 kilometer-long eastern shore of the lake, with its thin, winding islands and white beaches.
The islands and intervening waterways make a rich habitat for birds in this part of Asia. At least 318 species of birds have been identified at the lake; 22 of them are endangered. It is the northernmost habitat of the pink flamingo. The lake system is Kazakhstan’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has been declared a RAMSAR wetland site of international importance.
Part of the richness of area is its complex hydrology. Fresh water enters the system via the Kulanutpes River, so there are small lakes (lower right) full of fresh water. But in this closed basin, the water in the main lake (top) slowly evaporates, becoming salty. Winds stir up bigger waves on the main lake, dispersing sediment and salt and making the water a cloudier and lighter blue-green. (Another astronaut photograph shows the entire lake system, while this story provides more information.)
The strange shape of the islands is not easy to interpret. They may be drowned remnants of delta distributaries of the Kulanutpes River. Westerly winds probably have had a smoothing effect on the shorelines, especially in a shallow lake like Tengiz, which is only about 6 meters (20 feet) deep.
The lake has an exciting history for people who follow space exploration. In 1976, a Soyuz spacecraft landed in the lake near the north shore (top right). The capsule crashed through the ice and sank during an October snowstorm when temperatures were -22°C (-8°F). Because of low power, the capsule was unheated and the crew was feared lost. It was many hours before the airtight capsule was located and divers could attach flotation tanks to get the capsule to the surface. It was then dragged ashore across the ice by helicopter. The rescue effort took nine hours before the crew was able to safely exit the capsule.
Astronaut photograph ISS047-E-83092 was acquired on April 26, 2016, with a Nikon D4 digital camera using a 400 millimeter lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by a member of the Expedition 47 crew. The image has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory as part of the ISS National Lab to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of the greatest value to scientists and the public, and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. Caption by M. Justin Wilkinson, Texas State University, Jacobs Contract at NASA-JSC.