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Portrait of a doomed Sea

Earth's youngest desert is shown in this July MERIS satellite image of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, over the last 40 years the Aral Sea has evaporated back to half its original surface area and a quarter its initial volume, leaving a 40,000 square kilometre zone of dry white-coloured salt terrain now called the Aralkum Desert.

As its water level has dropped 13 metres since the 1960s the Sea has actually split into two the larger horseshoe-shaped body of water and a smaller almost unconnected lake a little to its north. This Small Aral Sea is the focus of international preservation efforts, but the Large Aral Sea has been judged beyond saving (the shallowness of its eastern section is clear in the image). It is expected to dry out completely by 2020.

Towards the bottom right can be seen the sands of the Qyzylqum Desert. Already stretching across an area greater than Italy, this desert is set to extend further west in future, eventually merging with its younger Aralkum sibling. The distinctive darker area to the south of the Large Aral Sea is the delta of the Amu Darya river. Its waters support environmentally-unique tugai forests found only in Central Asia, along with land used for rice and cotton cultivation.

The grey area seen in the otherwise whitish zone between the two arms of the Large Aral Sea was once Vozrozhdeniye ('Rebirth') Island, the isolated site of biological warfare experimentation during the Cold War, now joined to the mainland and freely accessible by foot. In reaction to this development, a US-led international team last year moved in to destroy remaining anthrax stocks.

Located on the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Aral Sea shows what happens when the concept of sustainable development is disregarded. Starting in the 1960s, the waters of the two rivers feeding the Sea the Amu Darya, seen south, and the Syr Darya to the northwest were diverted by Soviet
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Contact: Frederic Le Gall
frederic.le.gall@esa.int
39-06-941-80-757
European Space Agency
28-Jul-2003


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