The Aral Sea in Central Asia was once the fourth largest lake in the world but in a phenomenon dubbed as one of the worst environmental disasters in the planet, the lake has significantly shrunk ending the era of a prosperous fishing industry in the region.

Much of the Aral Sea is now a desert and human activities are largely to blame. The lake used to be fed by two rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya until the Soviet Union diverted these waters into canal for irrigation projects in the dry plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekisan and Turkmenistan, eventually devastating the lake. Today, the once vast body of water is only less than 10 percent of its original size.

A series of photos released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) revealed how the water levels in the Aral Sea have significantly declined over the years. The U.S. space agency's Terra satellite, which was launched in December 1999 to study the Earth's land, oceans, energy and atmosphere, started to take images of the body of water in 2000, when the lake has already shrunk to a fraction of its 1960 size.

By this time, the lake had separated into the Northern Aral Sea and the Southern Aral Sea, which is further split into tenuously-connected western and eastern lobes. A year later, the southern connection was cut off and the eastern basin quickly retreated over the next years, with large retreats observed in 2005 and 2009, which are apparently caused by drought that reduced and cut the flow of water from the Amy Darya. Water levels fluctuated between 2009 and 2014 but the eastern lobe of the Southern Sea has eventually completely dried up in 2014 due to the dry conditions.

The drying of the lake has, unfortunately, brought along with it the collapse of the fishing industry causing unemployment and economic difficulties in the local communities that depend on it. The dry lakebed also posed health threats and affected the weather in the area. Winters have become colder and summers were marked by hotter and drier condition following the loss of the large body of water.

"The blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard," NASA said. "The salty dust blew off the lakebed and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water."

Aral Sea in 2000

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