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The future Aral Sea: hope and despair

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Abstract

The Aral Sea in 1960 was a huge brackish water lake (4th in the world in surface area) lying amidst the deserts of Central Asia. The sea supported a major fishery and functioned as a key regional transportation route. Since 1960, the Aral has undergone rapid desiccation and salinization, overwhelmingly the result of unsustainable expansion of irrigation that dried up its two tributary rivers the Amu Darya and Syr Darya and severely damaged their deltas. The desiccation of the Aral Sea has had severe negative impacts, including, among others, the demise of commercial fishing, devastation of the floral and faunal biodiversity of the native ecosystems of the Syr and Amu deltas, and increased frequency and strength of salt/dust storms. However, efforts have been and are being made to partially restore the sea’s hydrology along with its biodiversity, and economic value. The northern part of the Aral has been separated from the southern part by a dike and dam, leading to a level rise and lower salinity. This allowed native fishes to return from the rivers and revitalized the fishing industry. Partial preservation of the Western Basin of the southern Aral Sea may be possible, but these plans need much further environmental and economic analysis. This paper, mainly utilizing hydrologic and other data as input to spreadsheet (Microsoft Excel)-based hydrologic and salinity models, examines the current efforts to restore the Aral and looks at several future scenarios of the Sea. It also delineates the most important lessons of the Aral Sea’s drying.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    References to the Amu and Syr often refer to them as the Amu Dar’ya River and Syr Dar,’a River. This is redundant as dar’ya in the Turkic languages of Central Asia means river. However, this is an accepted practice.

  2. 2.

    Aral Sea levels are officially measured above this zero that is about 20 cm above ocean level.

  3. 3.

    Water balance assumptions: surface precipitation (P) = 120 mm/year; surface evaporation (E) = 960; net groundwater inflow (GW) = 0.1 km3 P and E are taken from Shivareva et al. (1998) and GW is the author’s.estimate.

  4. 4.

    The level was determined from comparison of MODIS 250 m resolution satellite imagery and the Soviet 1:500,000 bathymetric map of the Aral Sea. The area was calculated by outlining the Western Basin on the image, using Image J software (freeware available from the US National Institutes of Health) to count the pixels enclosed and then multiplying the number of pixels by 250 which is the pixel resolution in km2 of this MODIS imagery.

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Author information

Correspondence to Philip Micklin.

Additional information

This article is part of a Topical Collection in Environmental Earth Sciences on ‘‘Water in Central Asia’’, guest edited by Daniel Karthe, Iskandar Abdullaev, Bazartseren Boldgiv, Dietrich Borchardt, Sergey Chalov, Jerker Jarsjö, Lanhai Li and Jeff Nittrouer.

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Micklin, P. The future Aral Sea: hope and despair. Environ Earth Sci 75, 844 (2016) doi:10.1007/s12665-016-5614-5

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Keywords

  • Aral Sea
  • Irrigation
  • Water balance models
  • Amu
  • Syr
  • Small Aral Sea
  • Large Aral Sea