August 5, 2009—Talk about a sea change.
From 2006 through 2009, Central Asia's vast Aral Sea dramatically retreated, with its eastern section losing about 80 percent of its water in just four years (above, an animation made with newly released satellite images from the European Space Agency shows the regression).
The immense body of water, which straddles Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (see map), was once the world's fourth largest freshwater lake.
But in the past 30 years, 60 percent of the lake has disintegrated, according to NASA's Earth Observatory.
In the 1960s farmers in this arid region began diverting water from two major rivers that flow into the lake to irrigate cotton fields and rice paddies.
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By the end of the 1980s, the Aral had split in two lakes: the Small Aral Sea to the north and the horseshoe-shaped Large Aral Sea to the south.
By 2000 the Large Aral Sea had split into two sections, an eastern and western lobe.
Without an influx of freshwater, the concentration of salts and minerals in the soil began to build up, making the remaining water saltier. This caused the commercial fishing industry to collapse.
Many people have since switched to rice farming, which requires even more diverted water, according to NASA.
The governments of the surrounding countries have not tried to slow the lake's demise, experts say, and the poverty-stricken region's dependence on exports means that the southern section of the lake may soon be gone for good.