Image 1: This image of the dying Aral Sea was taken by Envisats Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS) instrument on July 9.
Image 2: This south-facing image of a much larger Aral Sea was taken by an astronaut on the Space Shuttle Challenger (carrying ESAs Spacelab) in August 1985.
Image 3: During its heyday the Aral Sea fishing town of Muynak had fishing boats deliver their catch straight to canneries that employed 2,000 people. Now the town is 150 km away from water. Credits: Petter Hveem - Medecins San Frontieres Norway
Earth’s youngest desert is shown in this July MERIS satellite image of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, over the last 40 years the Aral Sea has evaporated back to half its original surface area and a quarter its initial volume, leaving a 40,000 square kilometre zone of dry white-coloured salt terrain now called the Aralkum Desert.
As its water level has dropped 13 metres since the 1960s the Sea has actually split into two – the larger horseshoe-shaped body of water and a smaller almost unconnected lake a little to its north. This Small Aral Sea is the focus of international preservation efforts, but the Large Aral Sea has been judged beyond saving (the shallowness of its eastern section is clear in the image). It is expected to dry out completely by 2020.
Towards the bottom right can be seen the sands of the Qyzylqum Desert. Already stretching across an area greater than Italy, this desert is set to extend further west in future, eventually merging with its younger Aralkum sibling. The distinctive darker area to the south of the Large Aral Sea is the delta of the Amu Darya river. Its waters support environmentally-unique tugai forests found only in Central Asia, along with land used for rice and cotton cultivation.
| European Space Agency
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