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The Past, Present, And Future Aral Sea

P. Micklin
Published 2010 · Geography

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The Aral Sea, a once vast brackish terminal lake in the heart of Central Asia, has been rapidly drying since the 1960s. It had separated into four separate waterbodies by September 2009. The maximum water level decline was more than 26 m, whereas the lake surface area decreased 88% and the water volume 92%. The lake salinity increased by more than 20-fold. Prior to the modern recession, the Aral Sea experienced a number of water level declines and subsequent recoveries over the last 10 millennia. The main causative factor until the 1960s was the periodic westward diversion of the Amu Dar’ya, the main influent river, towards the Caspian Sea by both natural and human forces. The post-1960 recession, however, was overwhelmingly the result of unsustainable irrigation development. The lake’s modern recession has caused a broad range of severe negative ecological, economic and human welfare problems. To restore the Aral Sea to its 1960s’ size and ecological condition would be very difficult, if not impossible, in the foreseeable future. The plight of the Aral Sea, however, is far from hopeless. Partial restoration of portions of the lake is still feasible. A project to raise the Small (northern) Sea was completed in Fall 2005, raising its water level by 2 m, and lowering its salinity to a level not much higher than the early 1960 levels. Its ecological recovery has been dramatic, and a new project to improve further the Small Aral was recently announced. Improving the Large (southern) lake would be much more difficult and expensive. A project to save the deep Western Basin partially is technically feasible, however, and should be given careful evaluation. It is important to repair and preserve what is left of the deltas of the two tributary rivers, Syr Dar’ya and Amu Dar’ya, as these two rivers are of great ecological and economic value, and act as biological refugia for endemic species of the Aral Sea.
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