Aral Sea: Once a Great Sea is Now the Youngest Desert

During the 1950s and the 1960s, the former Soviet Union largely diverted the waters of Amu Darya and Syr Darya for irrigation purposes. Losing its two major sources, the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, shrank to roughly a tenth of its former size. While the water level dropped, the salinity rate of the lake increased until the fish population died off. Furthermore, the Soviet Union’s extensive bio-warfare experimentations as well as the usage of heavy pesticides and herbicides for cotton production. Nowadays, the lake exists as several smaller water bodies on a highly contaminated lake bed.

Aral Sea
Aral Sea in 1989 and 2008 by Zafiroblue05

Formerly the fourth-largest inland sea in the world, the Aral Sea is now the world’s youngest desert, known as the Aralkum Desert.

Image from 2009 by Jesse Allen

In addition to its aggressive irrigation projects, the Soviet government also conducted experiments with anthrax, plague, and smallpox on the island that was once in the center of the Aral in the 1950s. Upon the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the poisonous materials were buried on the island. In 2001, a US anti-terrorist team visited the island to clean up the land. However, author Nick Middleton still came across plenty of test tubes, old buildings, and feeding troughs for the test animals during his visit in 2005. Even worse, unlike smallpox, anthrax can survive for decades, and once inhaled, has a mortality rate of 90%.

Aral Sea

Due to this toxic environment, the local population suffers from abnormally high cancer rates, tuberculosis, and anemia. Moreover, the death of the fish population also became the end of the local fishing industry. As a result, several fishing boats were left aground to rust.


Constructed in 2005, the Kok-Aral dam separates the northern (fed by Syr Darya) and the southern (fed by Amu Darya) water bodies. A sluice gate allows some flow from the north basin to the South Aral. Although the eastern lobe also refills through heavy snowmelt during wet seasons, this waterbody does not stay permanently.

Aral Sea
Part of the Aral Sea was reflooded through heavy snowmelt (2017). Image by NASA Earth Observatory
Aral Sea in May 2024 by ESA