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NASA Satellite Shows Vanishing Inland Sea


The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, is now a withering pond — a shell of its former self. The lake has seen massive amounts of recession in recent decades due to severe drought and a Soviet-era irrigation program that’s stripped the lake of most of it’s lifeblood, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers.

The Soviet water diversion program began in the 1960s. It was an attempt to turn the surrounding desert-like plain into a fertile and productive agricultural zone.

According the NASA, the program had some success and it created arable land where bone-dry conditions once existed. But the impact on the Aral Sea was devastating.

The scrolling images above, from NASA’s Terra satellite, show the rapid retreat of water from 2000 to 2014. Only small sections of the lake remain and are now considered separate parcels, the North Aral Lake and the South Aral Lake.

Only in the 2010 and 2012 images can you see a rebound in the lake’s size. That was mostly due to abnormal rainfall in the region during those times, but the drought soon resumed and by 2014 the lake was at it’s lowest level in modern history. Some estimates suggest 90% of the lake is now gone.

In an interview with NASA, Philip Micklin, an Aral Sea expert said, “…it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea.”

The impact on local economies has been devastating, fishing communities that once thrived and flourished are now withering or just totally gone. And as the lake shrunk, the salinity (saltiness) of the lake grew. It also became contaminated with high concentrations of pesticides and fertilizers used in regional agriculture, making the lakes dangerous to fish.

The lake also had an immediate effect on the local climate. Since water heats and cools much slower than land, seasons were much less likely to be extreme. With the loss of the water, daily and season temperatures swing much more wildly.

Even with modern conservation techniques, government entities in the region were unable to make much of an impact on the lakes level. And in 2005 the lake was deemed to be beyond saving.

Meteorologist Alan Raymond

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