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Earth NASA

Aral Sea Basin Almost Completely Dry 151

An anonymous reader writes: In 2000, NASA began taking satellite images of the Aral Sea in central Asia, which was once the fourth-largest inland lake in the world. At that time, there was an expansive eastern basin, and smaller basins to the north and west. In images recorded just last week, we see that the eastern basin is completely gone, and the western basin just a thin strip of water. The local fishing industry has been devastated, old ship graveyards now rest on dry ground, and salt-heavy sand is being blown around the region, causing health issues.

Most of the lake's decline is attributable to human intervention: "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, starving the Aral. It has been diminishing ever since, with the sea level dropping 16 meters between 1960 and 1996, according to the World Bank. Water levels are believed to be down to less than 10 per cent of what they were five decades ago." Low levels of rain and snow didn't help.
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Aral Sea Basin Almost Completely Dry

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Too many meatbags on this Earth. Lake/river water has to be diverted for farming for all the people. There won't be any water left before you know it.

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      Won't these ultimately just be energy wars? We won't run out of water, just low energy input drinkable water.

      The fight will be (err, maybe already is) over the energy resources necessary to do stuff like desal and purification.

      And the summary says that the water was diverted for cotton farming which probably is more of a result of some bad central planning goal for self-reliance since most of the Soviet Union isn't great for cotton farming.

      • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @10:22AM (#48037251) Journal

        I don't think this particular story is a harbinger of that. Rather, I think it's a story of monumental stupidity caused by a totalitarian government that didn't bother looking forward, and was too eager by half to waggle their technological penises in front of the world.

        The rivers feeding the Aral Sea haven't dried up - just that most of it got diverted to other uses, and the Aral Sea was the unfortunate loser in that bargain.

        I don't disagree that yeah, potable water is going to eventually be a problem as climate slowly shifts and population grows. The climate and population growth are debatable and mostly unknown as to rate, direction and cause, but change they will.

        • by west ( 39918 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @10:56AM (#48037709)

          Not to be too contrarian, but before we declare this an unmitigated disaster, shouldn't the cost of the destruction of the Aral sea be measured against the benefits of provided by the water that used to flow into it?

          I have no idea of the numbers, but if we're talking about the 100,000 people having their livelihood destroyed and their environment destroyed so that millions can proper elsewhere, that might seem to be a fair trade-off to the government.

          After all, I'm a North American, so unless I'm a huge hypocrite and also view North America as an unmitigated disaster, I have admit that the prosperity of my nation has only been achieved by the wholesale destruction of many others (the Native Americans).

          There are *always* trade-offs. Unless we've got an accounting of both the costs and the benefits, who's to say the Aral sea decision was a failure?

          • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @11:33AM (#48038207)

            Even the people that want to restore the lake don't argue the benefits of redirecting the water. The problem is how it's been redirected. The soviets litterally dug trenches through sand to get it where they wanted. It's not in pipes, it's not through pumps. The water travels over sand through an open air canal in the desert. Estimates are that less than 15% of it actually gets to the farm fields. If they fixed the canals they could have both the farm land and the sea.

            • by west ( 39918 )

              Ah, thanks for the correction. I should have read more deeply.

            • I think the question is, given when it was done and the resources the country had at that time, could it be done right back then on the same or otherwise reasonable timeframe?

              Obviously, it can be fixed now, but it sounds like it's way too late for that to have a meaningful effect.

            • I see your point, but it makes me think... how do you propose to "fix the canals"? Cement the bottom better, or close-over the top? I ask, because I truly don't know the sources of the loss, but....

              ...if the loss is mostly into the air (evaporation), I agree, that sucks (unless the rain stays somewhat local). I wonder though how many acres of land are "accidentally" watered by seepage/waste/runoff/spillover/outward-gradual-soil-moistening. I'd imagine lots of creatures are making new homes along the
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward

            After all, I'm a North American, so unless I'm a huge hypocrite and also view North America as an unmitigated disaster,

            The political indoctrination that you have received has obviously been successful in filling you with an irrational self-loathing. Stop the hate including the self-hatred.

            I have admit that the prosperity of my nation has only been achieved by the wholesale destruction of many others (the Native Americans).

            Careful estimates of pre-Columbian Amerindian populations in what is now the U.S. and Canada have shown that the population of Amerindians today is several times larger than it was before 1492. Amerindians have benefited from modern agriculture just like everyone else. Sure, the Amerindian cultures were mostly wiped-out, but that is no

            • Water was not diverted directly from the sea. It was diverted from the rivers that feed the sea, and it's still being diverted (the rivers are not going away any time soon), so the benefits remain - what's "short term" about them?

          • by wired_parrot ( 768394 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @12:31PM (#48038933)

            Not to be too contrarian, but before we declare this an unmitigated disaster, shouldn't the cost of the destruction of the Aral sea be measured against the benefits of provided by the water that used to flow into it?

            The soviet scientists involved with the water diversion were aware that the Aral sea would eventually dry up. In fact, the decline in sea level was observable from the very beginning. It is true the lake drying up was an intended and foreseen consequence.

            However, what was unforeseen were the ecological consequences of the lake drying up, that has turned the dry lake bed into a salt desert where dust storms kicking up toxic sediments are a common occurrence. Without a large body of water to moderate the weather, nearby communities now experience hotter summers and colder winters. In effect, one desert has been traded for another.

            And while diverting water for agricultural uses might be beneficial, most of the canals used for the diversion are not properly lined, experiencing significant water wastage during transport. And most of this water is being used for water-intensive crops like cotton and rice. Were good irrigation practices used, and if more suitable crops that required less water were used instead, it is likely only a fraction of the water would be needed. It also has to be kept in mind that the economic benefits agricultural irrigation has brought has to be balanced the economic loss resulting from the loss of fishery in the area,loss of tourism (some of the villages were once seaside resorts), and economic hardship resulting from the ecological changes to the landscape

          • by jafac ( 1449 )

            Oh, so it's NOT an unmitigated disaster. It's a mitigated disaster. That's much better!

            • by west ( 39918 )

              There are other factors in this situation as pointed out just above, but as far as your comment goes, you are *exactly* right.

              Almost every condition of existence is a mitigated disaster.

              The very existence of a modern society has caused untold destruction on the environment. However, the fact that we like being alive is presumably a good that makes our existence a "mitigated disaster".

              So, yes, I'd call a mitigated disaster much better. In fact, that's the best you can hope for, aside from pretending the pe

          • Always two sides to every story. The opposite, yet similar situation is when rivers are dammed up for hydro power, this usually "destroys" the land behind it with flooding to form a reservoir. In extreme examples like the diversion above which are monumental engineering feats you have the huge dam in China that swallowed up huge tracts of land including whole villages. Again, measured negative VS positive...

            Even in smaller situations you have issues with wildlife ecology destruction, and native issues... Th

        • by Kiwikwi ( 2734467 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @11:03AM (#48037819)

          Yup, this is what you get when a short-sighted totalitarian government messes with the water cycle to enable farming in a desert, consequences be damned.

          Come to think of it, California is what you get when a short-sighted democratic government messes with the water cycle to enable farming in a desert, consequences be damned.

          Let's face it, environmental concerns wasn't really on any government's radar until the 70s. (And a lot of countries still try to ignore them...)

      • E=mc^2, so you might be right. In the end almost any problem can be formulated as an energy problem.

      • Cheap solar pretty much negates energy wars and conflicts. There's enough sunlight to sustain dozens of gigahitlers.
    • Turns out huge amounts of farming doesn't do much good if there's not a large population to feed. Humanity has had plenty of water wars in the past, and it's quite reasonable to say they will in the future.

      But on the technological horizon, there's altered graphene based desalinization. It may be possible to efficiently generate drinking/farming water from the oceans, which will end this problem.

      For now this is an artifact of the whole "China is growing unsustainably" phenomenon, and not some huge trend ab

      • But on the technological horizon, there's altered graphene based desalinization. It may be possible to efficiently generate drinking/farming water from the oceans, which will end this problem.

        Which ocean are you going to take your water for desalinisation into the Aral Sea area from? The Indian, Arctic, or Pacific? (I wouldn't waste time trying to take it from the Caspian, Black or Mediterranean seas - the Caspian is already isolated and you'd just move the problem ; and the others are at the far end of lit

    • by anagama ( 611277 ) <obamaisaneocon@nothingchanged.org> on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @10:26AM (#48037333) Homepage

      The water will still be there, but it will be used to benefit people and the organisms we value. There is a finite volume (*) of life the earth can support -- what we're down to is how it ought to be divided and the choice we are making is that the only organisms worth anything, are people, cows, pigs, chickens, and corn. Our population problem is an extremely unpopular topic, but by ignoring it, we will eventually destroy all the interesting biodiversity we have in the world in exchange for a monocrop of people, along with the very few organisms people tend to value, and the diseases and parasites associated with those.

      (*) by weight if you will(**), not individual count.
      (**) differences in body composition make "weight" not exactly accurate as some things have greater density due to the use of different minerals (hard shells or bones as a percent of body mass for example). What can be said is that there is a finite amount of stuff on the earth that can be mixed up in different ways into a finite total amount of life. The question we should ask is, what is a smart or wise percentage of that total, that we humans and the plants/animals we value, should comprise.

    • It's not the # of meatbags thats the problem. It's their distribution and quality. Quantity is not really a factor here. Unless you think decreasing Quantity will some how magically increase quality and stop meatbags from distributing themselves poorly again.

      Nope

      • It's not the # of meatbags thats the problem. It's their distribution and quality. Quantity is not really a factor here. Unless you think decreasing Quantity will some how magically increase quality and stop meatbags from distributing themselves poorly again.

        Nope

        Well yes, it's those other low-quallity people over there that has to reduce their population, not us high-quality people here!

    • by AvitarX ( 172628 )

      My grandfather was a geologist, during the oil crisis of the 70s, he essentially said bah, the real problem will be water in the 2000's

  • So it is not global warming? What a relief!
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The Soviet Union is dead 15 years ago. The situation has progressively gotten worse as MORE, not less water was diverted.

    The current fuckup has little to do with what the Soviet Union's master plan was in 1960s and can be blamed 100% on what people continued to do in more recent years.

    Anyway, just read the wikipedia page on it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]

    • by pastafazou ( 648001 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @10:23AM (#48037279)
      Why do you declare it a fuckup? They diverted the water, and now have farmland where before they had desert. That was their plan. If you're telling me that they wanted farmland in the desert as well as the Aral Sea to stay the same, then yes it was a fuckup. But I don't think that was the intention.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A... [wikipedia.org]

        * salt is ruining the "farmland" because the entire water table is rising along with the salt that is in the soil
        * salt from the Aral Sea is blowing around, ruining more "farmland"
        * short term gain, for long term pain? That always is nice.
        * the area used to be a resort area with booming fishing, now, it's a desert with stunted farm crops.

        You see, there are proper ways to farm in that area, inappropriate ways and then there are the truly fucked up ways to farm. They picked th

      • by umghhh ( 965931 )
        It is a fuckup not because of nature but because of the way it was done (most of diverted water does not reach the fields it was diverted to irrigate) as well as deadly consequences the dust from dried bottom of what used to be Aral sea has on people living in the area. Nature itself is complex. That is why making the trade Aral sea for some cotton is not a good deal.
    • According to the linked Wiki article:

      The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets; they expected it to happen long before. As early as 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed, explaining, "It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea."

      So the plan from the beginning was to have the A

  • What a shame. All this destruction for a few years worth of money. I suppose we're getting what we deserve, anyway.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Read Atimatov's book and you will get a feeling for what splendor the Aral Sea was.
    And just so recently do to human avarice has it been utterly destroyed.

    The hard questions now are:
    How much money has been drained away in restoration efforts to date?
    How much money will be drained away in more failed restoration efforts?

    We just keep taking and giving only poison back.
    This is just more proof we do not deserve to be curators of this fantastic place.
    Humans are hideous and ignorant not by nature, but by pure choi

  • by Toad-san ( 64810 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @10:41AM (#48037541)

    http://earthobservatory.nasa.g... [nasa.gov]

    Quite startling, how the water levels change. But read the article to see why this is happening, and where it's going. It seems it doesn't take a "totalitarian government" to do stupid, short-sighted things. But hey, enjoy your golf at Vegas, hear? And the water shows.

  • I'm sure it's economically impractical, but it strikes me that filling some of the worlds emptying water basins by towing large antarctic icebergs to a nearby port and then breaking them up for shipment is a win-win scenario.

    Obvious downside: fossil fuel use to get water where it is most useful may exacerbate the problem over time.

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      Why not use the fuel instead to pump and desalinate ocean water?

      The Aral is problematic because it's far from the ocean, but you could pump and desal from the Black Sea to the Caspian and then pump from Caspian to Aral. It'd be 600 miles or so of total pipeline, but it would really depend on how much you could desal and pump and if that volume would even make a difference.

    • Obvious downside: fossil fuel use to get water where it is most useful may exacerbate the problem over time.

      We know just fine how to build nuclear-powered ocean vessels. Maybe Congress can give the corporate welfare to the MIC to build iceberg haulers instead of battleships.

      Since we're on the subject, does anybody know how to calculate the centripetal and gravity effects of a long-range tunnel bored through the earth's crust? I suspect there must be a maximum achievable tunnel length but also maybe the ro

      • We know just fine how to build nuclear-powered ocean vessels. Maybe Congress can give the corporate welfare to the MIC to build iceberg haulers instead of battleships.

        Two things:

        1) noone has ever built a nuclear-powered battleship.

        2) noone has built a battleship at all since WW2.

        Okay, three things: if you want to use nuclear power to tow icebergs, how about using nuclear power to desalinate seawater instead? Saves you the trouble of having to build a ship around your nuclear power plant....

        • by geert ( 2624 )

          Okay, three things: if you want to use nuclear power to tow icebergs, how about using nuclear power to desalinate seawater instead? Saves you the trouble of having to build a ship around your nuclear power plant....

          They used to have one "in the neighborhood"...
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BN-350_reactor

  • Mono Lake (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jerrry ( 43027 ) on Wednesday October 01, 2014 @10:57AM (#48037733)

    The same thing is happening to Mono Lake in California. The city of Los Angeles has been diverting the streams that feed the lake for decades and it's slowly drying up.

    • Actually, there are many of these bodies of water around (prehistoric endorheic basins including the Caspian Sea and the Great Salt Lake). But I think the Aral sea situation is more akin to the Salton Sea... The Salton and the Aral sea are that have recently had their replenishing flows restricted by agriculture.

      • by BBF_BBF ( 812493 )
        Are you implying that the Salton Sea was naturally formed?
        According to wikipedia, It was formed by an accident in 1905 which overflowed the canals carrying Colorado River water to California, so THERE ARE NO NATURAL replenishing flows for the Salton sea because it is NOT NATURAL.

        The Salton Sea is an example of Man's impact on nature. Once was a vast stretch of desert, now is a fetid lake.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
        • by slew ( 2918 )

          Even the Wikipedia asserts that the basin where the Salton sea wasn't some prehistoric stretch of desert that we somehow man has converted to a lake, it has been the location of a lake on-and off (every 100K years or so), for the last million or so years... For example, Lake Cahuilla [wikipedia.org]

          Like nearly all endorheic basins, in prehistoric times, the Salton basin was periodically filled by water from rain. It is generally thought that in pre-historical times, the Salton basin took water from the Alamo and Nuevo ri

    • And let's not forget what the City of Los Angeles did to Owens Lake [wikipedia.org]. " ... in 2013, it is the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States."
    • by chgros ( 690878 )

      Actually Mono Lake has been protected and its water level is currently going up.

  • Not too long ago some tectonic events raised the land under Gibraltar and the Med was cut off from the Atlantic. Turns out, the freshwater flows from rivers into the Med is nowhere near enough to sustain its current size. Without a water connection to the Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea dried up.

    It can happen again at any time. The Mediterranean's existence is always in danger.

    (and no, carbon emissions and AGW had nothing to do with it)

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Not on our watch.

      While the technology exists to cut the Gibraltar channel deeper as needed it will get done. So long as there are still people to hold the shovels it will get done.

  • Cotton is an extremely water-intensive crop. Until quite recently it was pushed on developing economies as an "export crop" for industrialized agriculture, replacing local food prodcution. This has generally been a disaster. For water-poor countries, growing cotton for export amounts to exporting expensive water to water-rich countires.

    Diverting water for agriculture simply makes no sense. It is cheaper and more efficient to import the end product.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is happening to too many lakes around the world. I visited Brazil this past August, and while visiting family, someone wanted to show me something.

    We got in the car and drove to a lake/reservoir, one of the largest in Brazil (Represa de Furnas). I had been there before, and knew what it was supposed to look like. We arrived, and drove out past the normal shoreline, and onward about a half mile before we reached the lake's current extent.

    It's truly shocking in person - and to start putting this together

    • 2 things to note: Represa de Furnas is a reservoir -- which didn't exist until man created it in 1957. The Aral Sea is a natural feature, and to give some perspective on how much water was diverted, one could transfer all the water from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario (Great Lakes) and still not refill it...
  • Burning Man Uzbekistan 2015!

    Build your camp in one of our rusting ship hulks laying on the playa!

  • Just blow up the diversion made by the sovjets and let the rivers flow it's original course..

1.79 x 10^12 furlongs per fortnight -- it's not just a good idea, it's the law!

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