Sometimes, it's truly incredible how much of an impact people can have on their environment. The International Coastal Cleanup, for example, was able to remove 6.8 million pounds of trash from the world's ocean and river ecosystems last year alone.
But most of the time, what we do is horrifying. Just look at "A World of Change," a collection of images of how our Earth has changed as viewed from space over the last ten years put together by the Earth Observatory for their 10th anniversary.
Before I show you the visuals, let me give you some background. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest inland sea in the world. As a saline body of water with an area of 68,000 km2, it was full of life and vitality. Existing in an otherwise arid area, the Aral Sea was a place of plenty. The cities on its edge were busy fishing communities, employing 40,000 people and supplying 1/6th of the USSR's fish. But all that began to change in the early 1960s, as Russian leaders decided they could use the water resource to produce more crops.
Over the next decades, the rivers which fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, were diverted over and over to irrigate the desert to the north so Soviets could grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton. Their projects were successful - cotton production in the region doubled, and today, Uzbekistan is one of the world's largest exporters of cotton. But while the irrigation worked, it had big side effects. Without the incoming water from its major rivers, the Aral Sea began to dry up.
In the 60âs, the Aral's Sea level fell an average of 20 cm a year, a loss which had tripled by the 70âs. By the 80's, the sea level was falling 90 cm a year, and irrigation plans diverting water from the Aral's feeding rivers still continued.
The arrogance of the Soviet leaders was astounding. They knew that the lake was disappearing, and felt little to no need to address the issue. Some saw the lake's existence as a flaw of nature in the first place, and that its evaporation was inevitable. Others simply stayed quiet about their concerns. It wasn't until the late 1980s that public opinion and clear problems led to a cessation of irrigation projects.
But the years had already taken their toll on the Aral Sea. Between 1960 and 1998, the Aral Seaâs surface area shrank by 60% and its volume by 80% - the equivalent of draining both Lake Erie and Ontario. Since then it has lost even more, down to only 10% its original size. In turn, its salinity has increased 450%. It has dried up so much that the sea split into two separate seas, one to the north and one to the south, which were connected by a man-made channel until recently. The little remaining water has become toxic due to high levels of salinity and chemicals from agricultural runoff, causing illness and death in the people and creatures that once flourished. The former lake bed is now a vast desert whose edges are littered with beached boats and the ghost-like remains of a once prosperous fishing industry.
Anyhow, for their 10th anniversary, the Earth Observatory put together "A World of Change," images of how our Earth has changed as viewed from space over the last ten years. Included is the change in the Aral Sea from 2000 to 2009 (the first image). But looking back even further shows the real change that has occurred (image 2 & 3, the black line=1960 extent). NASA captured the following images via satellite, and they show this horrible tragedy in frightening detail:
The Aral Sea, 2009 (more photos)
Now, efforts are being made to fix the damage, at least in parts of the Aral Sea, so that the fishing industry can be reborn, and the people who once lived off of it can again prosper. In a desperate effort to save whatever they could, Kazakhstan built a dam between the northern and southern Aral Seas in 2005. Its completion was a death sentence for the southern Aral Sea, as all of the water that still feeds the area now stays in the North. The dam has helped the northern sea a little, but even still there is little hope for a full recovery of the once-booming fishing economy. It's likely that what is done is done, and all that can be passed onward is a lesson for future generations about the impacts of our actions on the world around us.