Mourning Over the Inland Sea

As much as I want legroom when I fly in cattle class, I always choose to sit by the window for daytime flights. However, what I see below, on this trip from Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul, is tragedy only in the sense that it was caused by human hubris. The violence of poverty and ignorance are written on the face of the Earth below. I cannot document the devastation well enough on my iPhone, but I can tell a sad tale. The route appears to follow a traditional VOR route just to the south of Russia until the Black Sea, when the plane turns left and heads directly for Istanbul. There is so much light brown earth that the view seems monotonous, unless one realizes that most of what the plane is flying over used to be water.

The abstract beauty of devastation as seen from five miles up.

The abstract beauty of devastation as seen from five miles up.

I am, of course, referring to what was once known as the Aral Sea. To my historian’s brain and my photographer’s eyes, I can see a lot of things that are no longer there, first of which is water. Either Turkish Airlines is using maps made in the 90s or the desertification has accelerated because everything that marked in blue on the map is now brown, tan, or black interspersed with wee bits of green next to a brown “river.” There is no blue where there should be. I know the maps are accurate because I can feel the airplane turn at the appropriate VOR, which is supposed to be on a coastline. Now the plane turns in an anonymous-looking piece of desert.


This entire area is rendered in blue on the aviation map. That’s not good.

Of course, I saw more than the missing blue where the authority of the map told me it would be. I hopped into my historian’s time machine and looked back further in time than my own study of geography in the 1980s, when the Aral “Sea” was considerably bluer and, as I naively thought, had not begun to shrink. I read that the Aral Sea had been shrinking for some two decades now, but it has been shrinking for a lot longer than that. We, the parasites who live on this planet, only noticed or cared twenty years ago. Any fool can see from 36,000 feet that the entire basin had once been a great inland sea, spread from Tashkent and Bukhara in the (arbitrary East) to Baku in the West.

Yes, Baku. When I say that the entire basis was a great inland sea, it must have stretched from Azerbaijan to Tajikistan, south to Iran. Of course, I am writing from 36,000 feet up, not as an archaeologist digging a meter under the sun-baked crust of no man’s land, the land of Alexander, Mongols, Infidels, and Intifadas. But as much as one can see on the scarred Earth the impact crater that in grade school I learned had the name “Yucatan,” I can see the bottom of a prehistoric (or a very, very old) ocean.


Sand dunes where there once was a freshwater-fed, saline inland sea.

Sadly, no one else on board this metal tube seems to notice or care. I was nearly weeping watching those around me drink their clean water from plastic cups and thinking what have we wrought? The fighter still remains.

I had seen this same tableau when I flew over in 2012. The area was cloudy in 2013. The new things I saw this trip freaked me out the most: empty oxbows and sandy fields. Oxbow lake occurs when sediment fills in a meandering bend in a river, cutting off the meander, and creating a semicircular lake. The strong flow of the river continues in a deep and straight channel. In stable environments, oxbow lakes usually take some time to form. Sedimentary buildup is not a quick process when water is flowing freely. Oxbows are rare, except in places where water levels drop quickly. In the sand below, the unmistakable shape of an oxbow lake lay in the middle of a desert with no river nearby. The lake was completely dried up. So, if this whole area was once covered in water, the oxbow formed from a river that had had a fairly constant source even when the surrounding water had disappeared. The river flowed long and strongly enough to etch a meander in the soil and then filled it in with silt. Since then, the river itself had completely stopped flowing, and the oxbow lake either dried or was drained. That’s some serious devastation.


Image The meandering white line is a dried river bed. Just on the edge of the shadow, an oxbow (now dried) is clearly visible. The river kept flowing after the oxbow formed. The unmistakable grid of human settlement is the dominant feature on the bottom third.


The second and almost unbelievable sight was abandoned and desertified agricultural fields nowhere near water. The Aral Sea did not disappear due to some natural disaster (unless one considers human habitation a natural disaster). The manmade Janus-faced disasters of poverty and greed are at fault. As evidenced by the oxbow, water flowed into this dry place from some wet place. Humans used the water faster than it could be replaced and permanently altered the ecosystem. The Aral Sea died to irrigate, of all possible crops, cotton, one of the most water hungry and lucrative plants around. Poverty and commerce drained the sea, and when the water receded from overuse, the fields were abandoned and moved closer to the ever-decreasing water. Circular fields testify to machine irrigation; rectangular fields were probably hand or canal irrigated. All of them are now just patterns in the sand.


ImageThe white patches on rectangles are sand dunes on what were fields. New fields are interspersed, most at the top of the image and in the depression in the bottom third, where the oxbows are forming. I’m curious what it will look like next time I fly to Kyrgyzstan.


Sigh. More in Istanbul. The drinks cart is coming. …


Archaeology of Bukhara

The Aral Sea Crisis


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Filed under Environment, Environmental devastation, Flight, Greed, Poverty, Travel, Ugliness, Witnessing

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