Devastated by irrigation, the Aral Sea has swiftly disappeared from the landscape of Central Asia since the 1960s. The past 16 years of satellite imagery shows a stunning vanishing act for what was once the fourth largest lake in the world.
The Aral Sea, back when it actually was a sea, was fed by two rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, which flowed west from the mountains in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union began to divert the water of these two rivers for desert irrigation to grow crops, mainly cotton. Pockets of farmland sprung up near the Aral Sea along the two rivers, but the communities that depended on the sea for their livelihood completely collapsed.
NASA describes an apocalyptic scene that has unfolded over the past couple of decades:
As the Aral Sea has dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard. The salty dust blew off the lakebed and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
In an attempt to salvage what little was left of the sea, Kazakhstan completed a dam in 2005 that prevented any water flow from reaching the eastern part of the lake. All of the water flowing from the two rivers can only reach the Northern Aral Sea. In 2014, the eastern basin of the Aral Sea completely dried up. This year, a small, shallow pool of water has reformed where the once vast eastern lobe existed, now called the Aralkum desert.