Dramatic satellite imagery illustrates the radical transformation that the Aral Sea has undergone over the past 15 years.
The Aral Sea, which spans the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, used to be the fourth largest lake in the world. Fed by snow melt which arrived at the lake by rivers, it once supported a large fishing economy — an oasis in one of the driest regions of the world.
Scientists estimate that it’s now just 10 percent of its former size. Especially dry conditions in 2014 have caused the eastern lobe of the southern portion of the Aral Sea to dry up completely for the first time in modern history.
In the 1960s, the rivers that fed the Aral Sea were diverted into the desert by the Soviet Union. NASA describes what a devastating toll this took on the communities around the sea:
Although irrigation made the desert bloom, it devastated the Aral Sea. As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. Blowing, salty dust from the exposed lakebed became a public health hazard and degraded the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of the Aral Sea made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
In an attempt to salvage what was left of the northern portion of the lake, the Dike Kokaral was built in 2005. Lake levels appear to be increasing in the North Aral Sea, which is somewhat evident in the animation above. The water there is fed by the Sur Darya river, which flows from mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
NASA has also posted images of the Aral Sea just before its great demise in 1964: