A large dust storm blew across the Aral Sea in late April, 2014. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Terra satellite flew over the region and captured this striking true-color image on April 22.
In this image, pale dust lifts from the desiccated bed of the Aral Sea and the surrounding sere landscape. The dust blows to the southwest, spreading out in a thin pallid veil over much of northwestern Uzbekistan. The air over much of Kazakhstan, in the northeast remains relatively clear. Red hotspots, indicating areas where the thermal sensors on the MODIS instrument have detected high temperatures, are scattered in the greening areas in the north and the south of the Aral Sea. They are located in agricultural areas, and at this time of the year, such hotspots most likely mark fires used to manage crop or pastureland.
The Aral Sea was once the fourth-largest inland body of water on Earth, with a surface area of about 66,000 sq km (25.5 sq mi). In 1960, the mean water level was reported to be 53.4 m (178 feet), and the fresh waters supported a thriving fishing industry employing about 60,000 people. Intensive irrigation to support cotton and rice production began in the 1950s, and the impact of the drainage was immense. By 1977 the fish harvest was reduced by 75 percent, and in the early 1980s the fishing industry was virtually non-existent.
As the dry regions surrounding the sea were intensively cultivated, increasing irrigation continued to dry the lake. At the same time, to increase production, various chemicals – primarily fertilizers and pesticides – were heavily spread on the crops and subsequently leached into the lake water. As the waters have receded, the lake bed has dried, leaving a light-colored crust which is rich in salt as well as chemicals. Large dust storms are reported to occur roughly ten times annually, and may transport tens of millions of tons of dust per year to the surrounding lands.