World Of Change: The Aral Sea  

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Based on Earth Observatory’s World of Change series, this segment describes the devastating effects of agriculture on the Aral Sea through ground-based photos and a series of satellite images captured between 2000 and 2017.

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with the NASA Earth Observatory (

A globe spins.
Text, The Shrinking Aral Sea
A black and white view of the Aral Sea from the sky.
Text, Aral Sea, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. WORLD of CHANGE 2000-2017. The Aral Sea was once the fourth-largest lake in the world.
The sea straddles the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Text, In the 1960s, the Soviet Union began diverting water from the two major rivers that feed the lake. The water was used to transform the desert into farms for cotton and other crops.
The Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers flow from the sea.
An old boat sits in a shallow area of muddy water.
Text, Although irrigation made the desert bloom, it devastated the Aral Sea and the communities that depended on it. Fertilizers, pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals have contaminated both the water and the surrounding soil.
A dry desert area filled with small shrubs.
Text, The loss of such a large body of water has also changed the regional climate. Winters are colder and summers are hotter and drier.
This series of images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite documents the changes.
Image of the sea in green surrounded by land in brown.
Starting in 2000, as each year passes, the lake becomes a lighter green and shrinks in size. It is far smaller than an outline that shows the lake shore from the 1960s.
By 2009, the largest portion of the lake has dried up. In following years it becomes slightly green again.
It dries up again in 2014 and becomes slightly green again in following years.
The final image is from 2017. The lake has shrunk considerably and is a paler shade of green. Side-by-side comparisons of August, 2000 and August, 2017.