NASA Time-Lapse Shows a Huge Sea Rapidly Vanishing Over the Past 50 Years

Now you can walk on it.

Satellite imagery lets us take some truly gorgeous photos of our blue dot. By zooming out, we see not only the beautiful but also the harsh effects human choices have on our planet. One of many examples of choices we’re paying for is the 50-year decimation of the Aral Sea in central Asia.

In a video posted by NASA Earth on Thursday, a time lapse shows the dramatic disappearance of the Aral Sea from a brilliant blue to a dry beige. Made from satellite images taken between 1977 and 2018, the video of the inland lake collected over 101,000 views.

Stretching across some 26,300 square miles (or 68,000 square kilometers), the lake in Central Asia was once the world’s fourth-largest body of inland water. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, the sea and its nearby villages flourished, thanks to the bountiful supply of freshwater fish — in 1957, the fishermen delivered 48,000 tons of fish from the lake’s depths.

The Salty Sea

This life built around the sea changed when the Soviet Union diverted the two main rivers that supplied the lake, Syr Darya and Amu Darya, to dedicate their waters to cotton irrigation in the ‘60s.

ship stranded aral sea
Without a sea, villagers abandoned seafaring vessels, selling much of the scrap metal.

The lake’s water, once with only 10 grams of salt per liter, rose to more than 100 grams per liter. Native fish like bream, catfish, and pike-perch couldn’t survive these extremely salty concentrations, and so the lifeblood of the local economy was destroyed. Even outside the lake, the high levels of salt degraded the soil, and salty dust storms led to an uptick in respiratory diseases. A study from 2003 also reports the dramatic fall of life expectancy from 64 to 51 years old in the region containing the Aral settlements. Salty enough to permeate the very tips of grass, a camel owner told the BBC that roughly 15 of his camels became ill and died after consuming the salty blades. Without the sea, winters became colder, and summers hotter. Now one-tenth of its original size, the lake has split into two small sections, the North Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and the South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.

“The people destroyed the sea and then nature took revenge on the people,” Madi Zhasekenov, the director of the Aralsk Regional Museum and Fishermen Museum, tells National Geographic.

Living With One-Tenth of the Lake

Some recovery efforts were successful. After a sand dam was destroyed in 1999, the World Bank poured $87 million into building the Kokoral Dam in Kazakhstan, which served the North Aral Sea. Thanks to the rescue project, water levels roared back faster than scientists anticipated, increasing by 3.3 meters (10.8 feet) after seven months. In 2016, the 7,106-ton annual catch included old freshwater favorites, like the $2-per-kilogram pike-perch. Not only have the fish returned, but also the fishing families.

In 2014, the eastern lobe dried up for the first time in 600 years. 

But the regional renaissance is limited to the North Aral Sea. In 2014, the eastern lobe of the Aral Sea dried up completely for the first time in 600 years, and the South Aral Sea in Uzbekistan continues to suffer. Cotton in Uzbekistan still remains an important export, so repurposing water away from irrigation is an unpopular choice.

Marzhan, resident of Aralsk since the ‘50s, tells the BBC that villagers of the North Aral Sea continue to hope conditions will improve. The shore still remains a 20-kilometer drive from the town.

“Maybe my grandchildren’s grandchildren will see water here,” she says.

If Marzhan’s grandchildren don’t see water, the satellites above will see humanity’s choices, bearing witness to the sometimes catastrophic effects we have on Earth.