Mar 15, 2007

Where Once There Was a Sea

USGS and NASA images of the shrinking Aral Sea, 1964-2002 Left: USGS and NASA images of the shrinking Aral Sea, 1964-2002 (click for larger image)

The shores of the Aral Sea were once dotted with fishing boats, providing a livelihood for countless generations of Central Asians along what was once the world's fourth-largest lake.

Soviet-era irrigation projects to divert water from the rivers that feed the Aral Sea - especially the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya - reduced the lake's natural replenishment. Today the surface area of the Aral Sea is only 40 percent of its traditional size, and its total water volume a mere 20 percent of what it once held. There are technically today two "parts" of the Aral: the western "small" Aral and the eastern "large" Aral.

Al Gore mentioned the Aral Sea in his film An Inconvenient Truth, implicitly suggesting that the Aral was a casualty in global warming. He was correct that human ignorance led to this environmental catastrophe, but it is unlikely that global warming has much to do with the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The remaining water of the Aral is polluted in many areas almost beyond human use, filled with agricultural runoff, industrial wastes, and chemical and biological contamination from Soviet weapons testing. Much of the exposed seabed evolved into immense plains of dust and salt, and health problems abound for people living near the Aral Sea.

Abandoned ship on exposed seabed of the Aral SeaLeft: Abandoned ship on exposed seabed of the Aral Sea

There are efforts to reverse the degradation and restore the Aral Sea to its former state of health. The World Bank and the Kazakhstan government built the Kok-Aral Dam and a system of dikes to divert excess salt from the sea while improving water levels in the small Aral. The surface area of the northern portion of the small Aral has expanded by 30 percent in the past few years.

Oil-rich Kazakhstan has the resources to contribute to the restoration of portions of the Aral Sea, but Uzbekistan - with a per-capita income of only $1,920 - cannot afford the costs associated with sea reclamation. Moreover, the waters diverted from the Aral irrigate the cotton fields that produce Uzbekistan's main export crop.

Thus millions of acres of salinated wastelands provide a ready supply of material for the dust storms that plague a once-thriving region, and people like me go about our business half a world away, oblivious to an environmental disaster almost beyond comprehension.


Anonymous said...

Gore never said that the Aral Sea drying up was from global warming. Quit listening to Limbaugh. Here's the transcript from AIT:

Transcript of An Inconvenient Truth

historymike said...

1. I used the words "implicitly suggesting" a causal link between Aral Sea desertification and global warming, anonymous. Gore's inclusion of this disaster in a film on global warming, IMHO, is misleading.

2. That being said, An Inconvenient Truth is an important film, if for no other reason than to spark debate about global warming.

3. FYI - your source for the AIT transcription spells the Aral Sea as "Errol Sea." I'm not nitpicking, just pointing it out for anyone who wants to search the text for the exact Gore quotes.

4. Sorry, I am not a Dittohead. I do tune in El Blowhard from time to time to see what he's spouting off about. Do you assume that anyone who questions material in AIT is, by definition, some Limbaugh zombie?

5. I recognize that the planetary climate is changing. I am skeptical to the degree that human activity is responsible for climate change, but more importantly I question whether or not humans can effect a significant amount of reversal.

Or if we should; the laws of unintended consequences may come into play.

Right Wing Toledo said...


Point #5, well put!. But, I suppose that once man has replaced God with himself, he would naturally become endowed with God-like powers.

Makes you wonder though, how constantly we hear how the US is responsible for all the environmental destruction around the world - and it was the very socialist system that some environmentalists promote that was responsible for this devistation.

historymike said...


1. There are people on both sides of the debate who need a reality check. I hear people like the aforementioned Limbaugh call global warming a "hoax," while hardcore environmentalists promote the worstcase scenarios as "fact." Ultimately - there is still more to learn about the phenomenon.

2. Agreed that many people begin to see themselves as divine, and have overinflated beliefs in what humans can accomplish.

3. The desertification of the Aral Sea began under the Soviets, but it continues under post-Soviet governments. I guess a similar argument could be made about the degradation of Lake Erie under a "capitalist" United States.

4. The Sovets described themselves at various times with words like "communist" and "socialist," but I believe that what evolved under the aegis of the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev et al might better be described as "dictatorial bureaucracy." The Soviets were aware as early as the 1950s that they were destroying the Aral Sea, but continued their ill-conceived irrigation plans.

5. In its last few decades of existence, the Soviet system fell under a sort of bureaucratic malaise: administrators and managers became little more than paper pushers and blame-shifters, and little in the way of innovation occurred. Any ideals of socialism that ever existed in the Soviet Union were long extinguished by the time that Brezhnev came along, and Gorbachev inherited a decaying, inefficient state that stayed afloat mainly on oil export revenue. By 1987 and the oil market crash, the Soviets were doomed.



Chris said...


The Aral Sea, as you point out, is a result of poor water management. It is certainly not a climate change calamity.

The Russians (Soviets) completely destroyed the ecosystems in order to turn the area around the Sea into fertile farm land. While the agricultural aspect of the plan is a huge success, the destruction of the sea is a huge price to pay for that success.

I am afraid that those of us in the Great Lakes, or at least our descendants, will have to remain ever vigilent in order to keep the thirsty Plains and Western States away from our water so that the same thing does not happen here.

Gore's linking this with climate change is just an example of the hyperbole of the argument.

Also, I totally agree with you regarding the human impact on climate change. Yes, the climate is changing. Yes, we behave in a way that may exasperate that change, but then again that exasperation may be slight.

The fact of the matter is we are too high on ourselves to believe that our behavior can stem climate change. Climate change is natural and there are periods of heat and cold throughout the geological record. If the climate is going to change, there is little humans can do to stop it.

microdot said...

if the climate is going to change there is little we human can do to stop it?
the conditions that have created the exponential cycle of global warming did not take humans very long in a planetary time sense to create.
the solutions exist, but they require more than a passive attitude, blaming otheres for political points and the sheer pathetic inability to accept the need for change.
i totally agree that the disaster of the Aral Sea is a man made soviet water management disaster. i think if you want to see a man made water management disater unfolding before our eyes, you need look no father than the colorado river and the aquifer depletion in the south west.
it took only decades for the chinese to create the greatest industrially polluted areas on the planet.
the chinese are now aggressively moving in the direction of environmentally sane policies.
with out ranting on, I remain firmly committed to the factual belief that we as humans are capable of changing and dealing with this disaster. I have to go to work now.

Hooda Thunkit said...


Dittos on your first post #5, excellent!

On your second post #5 sounds vaguely familiar; I've seen that very same thing somewhere else, if only I could just put my finger on it...