The accelerating decline of the Aral Sea: a climate change catastrophe

Years ago, deep blue and full of fish, it was one of the largest inland bodies of water in the world.

The Aral Sea, once a thriving lifeline for thousands living around it and ranked among the world’s four largest lakes, is now facing a rapid decline, exacerbated by climate change. This vast body of water has nearly dried up over the past fifty years, a process significantly influenced by human activity.

Climate change’s hand in a decade-long disappearance

The Aral Sea, a saline lake of oceanic origin located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, has seen its surface area shrink by 75% since 1960, from 68,000 square kilometers to a fraction of its former size. The NASA Terra satellite annually documents the receding waters of this lake, illustrating a stark and ongoing environmental catastrophe.

Human activities and their impacts

For decades, the Aral Sea, fed by glacier-melt rivers crossing landlocked countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, was home to vast fish populations. These fish were caught and shipped to the Soviet Union, bringing prosperity to the region and attracting thousands of migrants from across Asia and Europe seeking employment on its shores.

However, this prosperity marked the beginning of the end. In the 1920s, the Soviet government began diverting water from the Aral Sea for cotton irrigation and other lucrative crops. By the 1960s, the lake had halved in size, and by 1987, it had split into two separate bodies of water: the North and South Aral Seas, in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, respectively.

The United Nations Development Programme has labeled the destruction of the Aral Sea “the most staggering disaster of the 20th century,” linking its disappearance to territory degradation, desertification, lack of drinking water, malnutrition, and deteriorating health conditions.

Below are the most recent satellite images:

A compounded disaster

To add insult to injury, the cotton plantations introduced a vast amount of herbicides, which over time contaminated the surrounding soil and the waters of the Aral Sea. With no outflow, toxins accumulated at the lake’s bottom. Once the water evaporated, only sand and polluted dust remained, which winds have spread hundreds of kilometers away.

Most of the Aral Sea is now essentially drained, with catastrophic consequences. Unfortunately, the Aral Sea is not the only lake facing such a dire fate.

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