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The Aral Sea Drying Out. This NASA Time-Lapse Video Shows It from Space

The ongoing collapse of the Aral Sea ecosystem, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, shows up clearly in a NASA video.

The lake used to be full of water, thanks to runoff from mountains as well as annual rainfall. But after the 1960s, when the Soviet Union diverted two major rivers feeding the lake to serve agricultural needs, the sea quickly shrank from the fourth-largest body of water in the world to a shallow lake bed.

Some of the damage was mitigated after 2005, when a dam was built to reduce the flow from the northern basins to the southern basins. Satellite images show that the northern part of the sea is filling up again but the south remains barren. Fisheries have collapsed and regional dust storms are more frequent.

"The remaining water supply became increasingly salty and polluted with runoff from agricultural plots," NASA officials wrote in 2012 about the region. "Dust blowing from the exposed lake bed eventually degraded the soils, forcing further water-diversion efforts to revive them. On a larger scale, loss of the Aral Sea's water influenced regional climate, making the winters even colder and the summers much hotter. Fifty years later, the lake is virtually gone."

Last month, some people living in Uzbekistan began planting trees to stop desertification, according to multiple media sources, including Bloomberg. Local officials said they are also planning to create an education center, presumably to let students know how the disaster happened.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.