Aral Sea almost gone: NASA

A large section of the Aral Sea has completely dried up for the first time in modern history, according to NASA. Images from the US space agency's Terra satellite released last week show that the eastern basin of the Central Asian inland sea—once the fourth largest in the world—was totally parched in August. Images taken in 2000 show an extensive body of water covering the same area. "This is the first time the eastern basin has completely dried in modern times," Philip Micklin, a geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University told NASA's Earth Obsrvatory. "And 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."

In the 1950s, two of the region's major rivers—the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya—were diverted by the Soviet government to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, depriving the Aral. It has been diminishing ever since, with the sea level dropping 16 meters between 1960 and 1996. Water levels are believed to be less than 10% of what they were 50 years ago. (The Guardian, Oct. 1)

2,000-year struggle for Aral Sea?

The book Disaster by Design: The Aral Sea and Its Lessons for Sustainability by Michael R. Edelstein, et al, eds., suggests that the Aral was actually created by earthworks erected in ancient times that diverted waters of the Amu Darya from the Caspian Sea to facilitate transport and irrigration. These were last maintained by the Khwarazmian Empire before being destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century, at which point the Aral began its decline. The sea began to recover when the Mongols consolidated their rule, and had the earthworks rebuilt. The new round of decline began when the Soviets started diverting waters of both the Amu Darya and Syr Darya to the cotton fields of the Fergana Valley.

This seems to be the opposite of what is suggested by Philip Micklin above, who says the Aral was diminished rather than replenished by water diversions 600 years ago. Can anybody shed any light on this? Dr. Micklin, are you there?