Aral Sea

Misleading Lists of Large Lakes

Conventional lists of the world’s largest lakes by area are often misleading. Most claim that the Aral Sea is one of the Earth’s most extensive bodies of inland water, some placing it in the fourth position, and others, including infoplease and factmonster, in sixth place. In actuality, the Aral Sea has virtually disappeared, and now is essentially a massive salt-flat, as can be seen in the paired images to the left. As a result, it should be deleted from such lists.

Second-place standing is also controversial. Most lists place Lake Superior in this position, including AboutGeography. The Wikipedia, however, has demoted Superior to third place, as it claims that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are actually a single lake, the world’s second largest. From a strictly limnological point of view, it is difficult to argue with this assessment.

The Wikipedia list of the largest lakes conveniently includes small maps, made to scale, of the water-bodies in question. I have copied and traced out several of these images to construct a simple map overlay that shows relative sizes of a few noted lakes. The massive extent of the Caspian Sea (which is actually a lake) is evident, dwarfing the combined Michigan-Huron. Michigan-Huron, in turn, is shown to be massively larger that Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul (in maroon), the world’s second largest Alpine lake, which in turn is vastly large than Lake Tahoe (dark blue), widely viewed as sizable lake. (Lake Tahoe is actually too small to be on the Wikipedia list; as a result I have had to estimate its relative size here.)

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Exhausting the Inexhaustible: Ogalala and Aral Illustrated

Earlier in the week, Professor Lewis left us with a dazzling posting on the Death and Partial Rebirth of the Aral Sea.

To see the decline of the Aral and the Ogalala at its most dramatic,download this week’s Google Earth File, as the companion and informational heart of this post.

For those of you whom are still, unfamiliar, The Sea of Aral was once one of the four largest lakes in the world. However, massive mismanagement, inefficient irrigation channels, overuse, poor crop choices, were at the core of Stalin’s unwavering “Great Plan for Tranformation of Nature,” and continued by the Uzbek and Kazhahk governments until a last ditch effort to save the Lake (called a sea), turned to a puddle.


At the peak of the Aral’s water loss, the cubic volumes of entire cities would pack up and leave in a single month. What’s left are rusting caracassess of ships, and empty deserts where water once flowed. The burgeoning trade in muskrat furs is gone too, with the tides.



What’s interesting about the case of the Aral was that there is no physical change to the water level on the satellite images, until it was far too late. Of course, the real problems with the Aral were discovered after massive hubristic, expensive, and inefficient construction projects had been in the works for years. The ironic part of this decline is that during the period of the greatest drain, the satellite imagery of the water level’s decline isn’t quite there. But when the countries finally realize their error, and put measures in place, the Sea sprints into its final decline.

But this problem does not just apply to former Soviet States. The breadbasket of the United States, as well, is guilty of heinous crimes in water mismanagement with the Ogalala Aquifer.

This vast underwater freshwater system was thought to be inexhaustible by US Farmers, even later into the 20th century. Recent estimates show that the Aquifer could be dry in as little as 25 years if consumption and replenishment rates continue as they are.

US farmers will be hard pressed to switch, considering their congressional power, but seeing the Colorado River dry to a near trickle has prompted a proactive response from the USGS.

The solution in the case of the Ogalala, as well as the case of Aral, may be to simply switch away form Irrigation dependent agriculture. In other words, we should avoid costly, terraforming, “Great Plans for the Transformation of Nature.” If the Soviet Government had simply decided not decided to grow cotton in an unnatural environment, the Aral would likely be a cohesive body of water today.

The decline of the Ogalala threatens the freshwater supply of the whole of the Central United States, and merits more significant political attention. This issue was brought to my attention in such a striking manner in the google earth forums, by a fellow cyber-cartographer- Diane, whose work was to good not to share with you all.

If you also work in Google Earth, or would like to contribute and correspond with GeoCurrents, please send us a message on our twitter, or contact us here.

Also as a bonus, for those of you interested in tracking the Icelandic Volcanic Eruption (which we correctly predicted a few weeks back) in Google Earth, please refer to this KML file.

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The Death, and Partial Rebirth, of the Aral Sea

After touring the remains of the Aral Sea by helicopter in April 2010, U.N. secretary general Ban-Ki Moon expressed shock at the scale of devastation. “It is clearly one of the worst environmental disasters of the world,” he reported. “It really left with me a profound impression, one of sadness that such a mighty sea has disappeared.”

The Aral Sea was until recently the world’s fourth largest lake; in 1960 it covered 26,000 square miles (68,000 km. sq.) – an area larger than Sri Lanka. But as the waters of Tien Shan and Pamir mountains flowing down the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers were increasingly diverted for irrigation, the lake began to shrink. Soviet planners maximized the production of cotton and other warm-season crops, knowing that it would doom the lake. As the Aral’s waters diminished, they grew increasingly salty and foul. By the 1970s, former shoreline villages were 40 miles inland. Fish species disappeared as the lake began to die. New islands emerged, and Vozrozhdeniye Island, where the Soviets had conducted biological warfare tested, joined the mainland. When the Soviet Union collapsed, destruction accelerated. By the 1990s, the Aral Sea had been divided into two separate lakes, and by 2003, into three. In 2009, the southeastern Aral basin dried up completely.

The end of the Aral Sea brought economic and cultural devastation. Fisheries that once employed 40,000 people shut down and local agriculture suffered. As the lake retreated, large salt flats emerged. Windstorms pick up the salt, along with silt and excess agricultural chemicals, and deposit it in local farmlands. The resulting dust storms are thought to transport up to 100,000,000 tonsof particles each year. Crop yields declined and public health suffered, particularly in the densely populated and formerly rich delta of the Amu Darya River.

The tragedy of the Aral Sea is relatively well known, unlike the more recent rebirth of the Northern Aral. In 2001 the oil-rich government of Kazakhstan set about reviving what had been the much smaller of the two successor lakes. Through more efficient irrigation and the construction of modern waterworks, the flow of the lower Syr Darya River was significantly augmented. A massive dike was thrown across the lakebed to prevent the additional water from flowing wastefully across the salt flats of the former Southern Aral Sea. By early 2010, the northern lake had expanded roughly 50 percent, its salinity dropping enough to allow the return of fish. The World Bank and the government of Kazakhstan are currently considering an extension of the project, hoping to bring the lake back to the former port city of Aralsk.

The success of the North Aral restoration project should not take our eyes away from the larger disaster. The renewed Aral is a fraction of the original, and the surviving portion of the southern lake is toxically saline. Nor should we only focus on the Aral, as Central Asia has other environmentally stressed if not devastated lakes. Lop Nor was once larger that Puerto Rico; its desiccated bed later became China’s main nuclear testing ground. Massive Lake Balkhash stretches 376 miles, the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Balkhash, which formed the northwestern boundary of Qing (Manchu) China at its height, is a most unusual lake — salty in the east, but essentially fresh in the west. Compared to the Aral, Balqash may be pristine, but it too is shrinking.

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