Aralkum Desert: The World’s Newest Desert

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Replacing the shrinking areas of the Aral Sea, the Aralkum Desert is located in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, making it the world’s youngest desert.

The Shrinking Aral Sea

The Aral Sea was once the fourth-largest inland water body in the world with an original area of 26,300 square miles (68,000 square kilometers).  Starting in the early 1960s, years of diverting water from two rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, for Soviet-era irrigation have left behind an extensive area of desertification.  In particular the Karakum Canal diverted water for cotton fields from those two rivers that fed into the Aral Sea. Now just 10 percent of its original size, this body of water experienced a reduction of water volume equivalent to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined. Sadly, 70 percent of the volume of water and 50 percent of the initial surface has been lost. There are now two much smaller lakes: The North Aral Sea and the South Aral Sea, as well as Barsakelmes Lake which is located between the two.

The shrinking Aral Sea 2000 - 2011. Series of satellite images from series of images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite.

The shrinking Aral Sea 2000 – 2011. Series of satellite images from series of images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite.

Saving the Aral Sea

The World Bank and Kazakhstan collaborated to build the Kok-Aral dike which helped to stabilize the northern section of the Aral Sea. This provided some success with reducing salinity levels and returning of some of the fishing industry which one provided one of the major sources of income for the area.  Unfortunately, the southern section of the Aral Sea is beyond saving and is projected to completely dry out by the end of the decade.

The World’s Youngest Desert

The white salt terrain left behind by the desiccation of the southern Aral Sea is now known as the Aralkum Desert.  At around 17,000 square miles (45,000 square kilometers), the Aralkum Desert is the world’s youngest desert, created entirely due to man-made disturbances. The desolate area has replaced a once vibrant fishing and tourist industry. With the climate mitigating effects of the Aral Sea diminished, winters are now colder and summers hotter.

Acquired on May 13, 2014, the 300 m-resolution Proba-V image depicts the white salt terrain left behind by the southern Aral Sea receding, now called the Aral Karakum Desert. The greenery to the south is cultivated land irrigated by the Amu Darya river.

Acquired on May 13, 2014, the 300 m-resolution Proba-V image depicts the white salt terrain left behind by the southern Aral Sea receding, now called the Aral Karakum Desert. The greenery to the south is cultivated land irrigated by the Amu Darya river.

Environmental Pollution in the Aralkum Desert

The loss of most of the Aral Sea has left behind areas overloaded with toxic sand and pollutants from pesticides and eroding ships. The area of desertification is so large that it can be seen from space, as shown in the image below from ESA’s Proba-V minisatellite.  The Aralkum Desert lies in the path of a powerful east-west airstream and these pollutants have been carried as far away as Antarctica.  Known as Black Blizzards, these powerful wind sorts carry dust pollutants from the Aral Sea over thousands of miles away; Aral dust has been found in the bloodstream of penguins in Antarctica, in the glaciers of Greenland, and in Norway’s forests.

The health of local residents has been greatly impacted by these dust pollutants.  Ten percent of children die within the first year of life, the rates of heart and kidney disease has risen greatly due to contaminated drinking sources, and cancer and tuberculosis rates are ten time higher than those from the 1960s.  The average lifespan has dropped significantly with the current average age at 51, down from 65.

Ghost ships at the former shore of the Aral Sea in Moynaq, Uzbekistan.  Photo: Sebastian Kluger.

Ghost ships at the former shore of the Aral Sea in Moynaq, Uzbekistan. Photo: Sebastian Kluger.

References

BBC. ‘Aral Sea Is “World’s Worst Disaster”’. BBC, October 22, 1990.

Breckle, Siegmar-W. Aralkum– a Man-made Desert: The Desiccated Floor of the Aral Sea (Central Asia). Berlin: Springer, 2012. Print.

Frederick, Kenneth. ‘The Disappearing Aral Sea’. Resources for the Future 102, Winter 1991.

Nachtnebel, H. P. The Rehabilitation of the Ecosystem and Bioproductivity of the Aral Sea under Conditions of Water Scarcity. Rep. no. 0511 REBASOWS. INTAS, Aug. 2007. Web.