Wednesday, February 19, 2014

NASA data find some hope for water in Aral Sea basin

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: A new study using data from NASA satellite missions finds that, although the long-term water picture for the Aral Sea watershed in Central Asia remains bleak, short-term prospects are better than previously thought.

Once the fourth largest inland sea in the world, the Aral Sea has lost 90 percent of its water volume over the last 50 years. Its watershed -- the enormous closed basin around the sea -- encompasses Uzbekistan and parts of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Graduate student Kirk Zmijewski and assistant professor Richard Becker of the University of Toledo, Ohio, wanted to find out whether all of the water was gone for good, or whether some of it might have ended up elsewhere in the watershed, behind dams or in aquifers. They also wanted to gauge whether decreasing rainfall has contributed to the catastrophic water loss.

The researchers used data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to map monthly changes in mass within the watershed from 2003 to 2012. These changes are associated with changes in water volume, both on and below the land surface. They mapped the entire Aral Sea watershed, which is more than twice the size of Texas at 580,000 square miles (1.5 million square kilometers).

Zmijewski and Becker found that each year throughout the decade, the watershed lost an average of 2.9 to 3.4 cubic miles (12 to 14 cubic kilometers) of water, or the equivalent of one Lake Mead per year. That's a sobering rate of loss, but it's only about half as much as the rate at which the Aral Sea itself is losing water (5.8 cubic miles or 24 cubic kilometers). "That means that roughly half the water lost from the Aral Sea has entirely left the watershed, by evaporation or agricultural uses, but half is upstream within the watershed," said Becker.

Specifically, more water is now in the central part of the watershed, where almost all of the region's farming takes place. That area increased in mass during the last four years of the study. The researchers believe that some of the increase comes from improvements in water conservation practices, though some was simply the result of inefficient irrigation, for example, water seeping out of unlined ditches into aquifers....

A stranded ship in the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, shot by Staecker, public domain 

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