Last week, NASA released time-lapse photos, taken by its Terra satellite, that show the drying over time of the Aral Sea in Central Asia—once the world’s fourth largest lake. The time-lapse, taken from August 2000 to August 2014, shows to devastating effect the disappearance of a massive body of water.
The back story of the Aral Sea’s vanishing into the earth is complex, but it’s generally agreed to be a man-made phenomenon. The story begins in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union undertook a massive diversion water project in the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The Soviets needed more fertile farming land to harvest crops and feed its population.
The task was to divert water from the region’s two major rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya; in the process, a desert transformed into a lush farming area. However, the Aral Sea, which at one time was situated between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was deprived of its crucial water basin. As NASA notes, “although irrigation made the desert bloom, it devastated the Aral Sea.”
Climate change began accelerating the drying process in the 2000s, most prominently from 2005-09 when the area experienced a prolonged drought that cut off the flow of the Amu Darya into the lake. The local fishing-based economy (pdf) of the surrounding towns and villages collapsed.
In a last-ditch attempt to save the lake just before the drought, Kazakstan built a dam in 2005—to no avail. The lake could not be saved. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon toured the area by helicopter in 2010, calling the lake’s disappearance one of the planet’s “worst environmental disasters.”
Correction (6:46pm ET): The original version of this story incorrectly implied that the Aral Sea was created by the Soviets in the 1960s. The wording has been changed to clarify the story.