Chances are, there’s a map of the world or a globe somewhere near you. And chances are, it’s out of date. Typically, maps fall out of date when political boundaries change; for example, most maps made before July 9, 2011 lack the country of South Sudan, which gained its independence on that day. But there are other reasons maps may require change as well, such as the case of the disappearing Aral Sea.

The Aral Sea should be located on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Its name was a misnomer as it (like the Caspian Sea) is more appropriately termed a lake — a huge lake. In 1960, it was the one of the five largest lakes in the world, at 26,000 square miles of surface area. At the time, the Aral Sea was part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviets used the rivers that flow into it as water sources for the generally arid region. Now, the Aral Sea is nearly gone.

From 1960 until 1998, the Aral Sea went from being the fourth largest lake to the eighth, losing an amount of water equal to the combined volumes of Lakes Erie and Ontario. And the damage kept increasing. Seen above is the progression from 1989 (left) to 2008, right — and there isn’t much lake left.

It gets worse: The now-evaporated areas are covered in toxic chemicals, a byproduct of pollution, weapons testing, and pesticides from the area — leading to toxic dust which has spread throughout the region, causing a cornucopia of health maladies. The decrease in water and a massive increase in salinity has destroyed a formerly vibrant fishing industry in the area, leading to a curious side effect: huge, abandoned ships sitting in the bottom of the now emptied lake, as seen below.

There are some efforts to desalinate and restore parts of the Aral Sea, but most of those efforts are focused on what is now known as the North Aral Sea (which is entirely in Kazakhstan) because the damage done to the South Aral Sea is more severe, and because the relatively poor Uzbekistan economy still relies on the feeder river for irrigation of cotton fields. In 2006, the North Aral Sea found some success with restocking fish, and a revival of this part of the once great lake may be on the horizon.


Bonus fact:  While the Aral Sea is suffering from not enough water, the island nation of Kiribati has the opposite problem. Kiribati is made up of a few dozen atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, most of which are only a few feet above sea level. The ocean level is rising about 0.1 inches per year and is expected to rise even more quickly in the future. This is putting the future of Kiribati at risk, and its government is hoping to buy land in nearby Fiji as a new homeland for Kiribati’s 100,000 or so people, when and if the time comes where a move is required.

From the ArchivesThe Old Man of the Lake: Another lake with something strange going on inside it.

Related: “The Devil and the Disappearing Sea: A True Story About the Aral Sea Catastrophe” by Rob Ferguson. Four and a half stars on 11 reviews.