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.

Geocurrents on Google Earth: The Gulag Archipelago Illustrated

The Gulag system began under Lenin as a means of ‘Re-Education through Labor,’ and was expanded exponentially under Stalin. Twenty to Thirty Million people were imprisoned in concentration camps that stretched across the whole of the Soviet Union. The Gulag system was significantly de-intensified under Nikita Kruschev in 1960, but by that time, millions had perished, and millions remained enslaved.

These camps stretched across the continent in a massive system, coined the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, one of the most important authors and historians of the 20th century, who had himself been enslaved in the system. His interviews with hundreds of zek’s in the Gulag system a harrowing portrait of humanity’s bleakest moments, and is an invaluable historical source.

For this weeks Geocurrentcast, I have digitally mapped a small sample of the labor camps in the Gulag Archipelago. It is an attempt to illustrate how terrain to be used as torture. There are a staggering amount of camps from this system, and I eventually endeavour to digitally map the whole of the Gulag Archipelago, overlaid with historical imagery.

First download the Google Earth File hereto access the tour.

If you are new to Google earth tours, first download google earth. Then download this file, and double click the video icon to play the narrated tour, or just click around the former Soviet Union.

Here are few other sites and maps I found, constructing the tour, that are particularly striking:


Solovki, a former monastery in on the Solovetski Islands was first inahbited by monks in the mid 15th century who migrated north from Moscow. Its was renowned for its harsh wintry solitude, and regarded as a holy place by some, owing to the absence of snakes. Passage to the island can be made nowadays only once a twice a week by plane or by ferry, when the conditions permitted.

Solovki was one of the first camps in the Gulag system, operating from 1923-1939. Solovki was a measuring stick for many of the methods of coercion and psychological control by the Soviet Government. It is in a sense, the Alcatraz of the Gulag Archipelago, as it is actually based on a frozen island. Solzhenitsyn said of Solovki:

It was a place with no connection to the rest of the world for half a year. A scream from here would never be heard.


CAVNIK, based in Northern Transylvania, Romania, is not a striking camp in any way. There were 96 others almost exactly like it in Romania alone. However, I through that this hand drawn prisoners map was particularly telling.

(image from http://www.osaarchivum.org/gulag/txt1.htm)


Illustrates the extent of the camp system, one state as a microcosm of the whole.

Solzhenitsyn’s history is so important because, as google earth showed, there is remaining no physical evidence of the camps all of Poland. Most of the coordinates lead to empty fields and drifts, while some led to shopping centers. What lies below the surface is invisible to our eyes.


Perm-36 is the only Soviet Gulag that has not been deconstructed. It is now preserved as a world heritage site and memorial, and is accompanied by aUNSECO museum on the Gulag System.

(Perm-36 Camp, Photo from the Museum’s Website)

If you’re taking a real Gulag tour through Russia, stop by the Perm-36 camp, as well as theMednoye Memorial Complex. Otherwise you’d have to take your chances with the strange historical narratives from the Russian State History Museum, or the Darwin Museum.

Make sure to read your Solzhenitsyn. Start with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, then progress to the poems he memorized in the camps which compose The Trail. Then, make a deep study of the Gulag Archipelago.

(Many thanks to Warc 1 in the Google Earth Community, for assembling the Kolyma Highway KML used in this presentation, and available here)