The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite began documenting the decline of the Aral Sea in 2000. NASA now says that eastern basin of the South Aral Sea is completely dried for the first year in modern times.

“This is the first time the eastern basin has completely dried in modern times,” said Philip Micklin, a geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University and an Aral Sea expert. “And it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, the government of the former Soviet Union diverted the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya—the region’s two major rivers—to irrigate farmland. The diversion began the lake’s gradual retreat. By the start of the Terra series in 2000, the lake had already separated into the North (Small) Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and the South (Large) Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The South Aral had further split into western and eastern lobes.

The Aral Sea was actually an immense fresh water lake, located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The lake was fed by the region’s two major rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. Prior to the early 1960s, the Aral Sea supported a thriving commercial fishing industry. The diversion of the rivers for irrigation depleted the water levels and resulted in increased salinity and mineral deposits in the lake, altering the ecology and killing the fish. By the early 1980s, commercial fishing had been eliminated.

Although the dams, canals, and other water works that were “built in order to transform the desert” into agricultural fields for cotton and other crops did cause the desert to bloom for a time, the price in the end appears to be an ecological disaster. Not only has the once-fourth-largest inland body of water dried up, but as it has diminished, sandstorms now affect the area.

References and Links to the NASA images:

The Aral Sea Loses Its Eastern Lobe September 26, 2014
NASA Terra-MODIS Image of the Day

World of Change Aral Sea
NASA images showing the progression, from 2000 to 2014.

Satellite images show Aral Sea basin ‘completely dried’