The Aral Sea(s): still shrinking

Ransom Riggs

Remember when we pointed out that the Aral Sea -- or what's left of it -- represents one of the Earth's worst man-made ecological disasters? (Once the world's fourth-largest lake, it's now little more than a salty, toxic puddle.) According to a new study conducted by British scientists, not only is it still getting worse, but humans associated with baddies as old-school as Genghis Khan and the White Huns have played a not-insignificant role in its destruction. But what's the real problem -- the one that sucked all the water out from under those boats (pictured)?

In 1918, the Soviets decided they wanted to farm the arid desert surrounding the Aral, and diverted much of its riverflow to do so. Thanks to this new irrigation, Uzbekistan became one of the world's largest producers of cotton, but they would pay a heavy price. Irrigation canals weren't waterproofed, and as much as 70% of the water was wasted or evaporated before it made it to the fields. Between 1960 and today, the Aral shrunk by nearly 80%, as the region's dependence on the Aral's water increased steadily. As the water levels dropped, the salinity of the water that remained increased, making it dangerous to drink. Miles upon miles of newly-exposed seabed were thick with salt deposits and the desiccated remnants of a century of pollutants dumped into the water, which were picked up by the wind and became toxic dust-clouds that today blow across large swaths of Central Asia. Cancer rates in the region have risen dramatically, and it's feared that many have suffered genetic damage.