Expedition to the North Aral Sea was conducted by Professor of Geography at the University of the West Michigan Ph.Micklin, Dr. N.Aladin and Dr. I.Plotnikov of the Zoological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences.
The expedition team also included two journalists, , a limnologist from Ljubljana University in Slovenia, two geographers, one American and the other Swedish, a French concert pianist who is interested in the Aral Sea, and a videographer. In the first part of expedition the team was accompanied by representatives of the International Fund for saving the Aral Sea (IFAS), together with the employees of two local organizations which provided the logistics support to the field work.
The main purpose of the expedition was to evaluate the success of a project to raise, stabilize, and improve the ecology of the Small Aral Sea.
Report summarizing the expedition results was prepared providing information on the conditions of the Small Aral Sea, "Small Aral Sea, also known as the Northern Aral Sea separated from the Large (south) Aral Sea in 1989. Syrdarya river flowing to the Sea is one of two major rivers flowing into the Aral Sea. Beginning in the early 1990s, local attempts were made to raise its level, lower its salinity, and improve ecological conditions via construction of an earthen dike to block outflow of Syrdarya water to the Large Aral. The makeshift dikes repeatedly failed and were rebuilt until a catastrophic breach in April 1999 that cost two lives. Beginning in 2003, the World Bank and Government of Kazakhstan funded an $85 million project to build a reliable, properly engineered dike and dam, to construct a regulating hydrocomplex at Aklak on the lower Syrdarya about 15 kilometers up river from that rivers entrance into the Small Aral and to make other improvements to the bed of the Syr Dar’ya to improve its flow carrying capacity. The discharge gates of the new dam were closed in August 2005 and the Small Aral reached design level (two meters above the August 2005 mark) by March 2006, far faster than anticipated. Since 2005, the ecology and fishery of the Small Aral Sea have undergone dramatic improvement".
Image map of 2011 Expedition around Northern part of Aral Sea
(base image from MODIS, Terra, 250 meter resolution natural color acquired on Sept. 23, 2011)
First half of expedition 2011 from 9-1-2011 to 9-3-2011 (red line); numbers indicate sequence of visit.
Second half of expedition from 9-5-2011 to 9-10-2011 (yellow line); numbers indicate sequence of visit.
1a. Butakov Bay
2a. Shevchenko Gulf
3a. Shche-bas Bay
6a. Lake Kamyslybas
Professor Ph. Micklin measured the key environmental parameters on the Kok-Aral Dam and the lower reaches of Syrdarya. The following findings and comments in the report were made: “Salinity in the lake above the dam was higher than expected, but since the this year inflow to the Small Aral has been well below the average for recent decades owing to a low-flow year on Syrdarya, which would mean less fresh water input near the dam and, thus, higher salinity. During the 2005 expedition, salinity here was 3.5 g/l. Nevertheless, ecological conditions near the dam seemed very good with high water transparency and very high levels of dissolved oxygen.
* The Small (northern) Aral Sea appears to be in excellent ecological condition. Salinity (based on my measurements, probably averaging 8-9 g/l) is ideal for the variety of fish found in the lake. [including sazan, L. Cyprinus carpio (a carp-like species that is highly prized by local people), som, L. Silurus glanis (catfish), shchuka, L. Esox lucius (pike), zherokh, L. Aspius aspius (aspe), lyosh, L. Abramis brama (carp), vobla, L. Rutilus rutlis aralensis (roach) and the very valuable sudak, L. Lucioperca lucioperca (pike-perch). The Fisheries Institute monitors the industry carefully to protect against over fishing and to gather biological data on the fish inhabiting the sea. Currently the Institute estimates the fish biomass of the Small Aral at 18,000 metric tons/annually., the overall take is 6,000 tons, one-third of the estimated biomass, which is the most restrictive (and protective) catch limit].
Dissolved oxygen levels are high, at least during the day when I did my measurements. There is the potential for future eutrophication owing to nutrients accumulated in the sediments, but this is far from a certainty.
The lake has developed into a major refuge for waterfowl, including migratory species. We saw large flocks of swans, flamingoes, and pelicans a number of places around the Small Aral. Careful, regular monitoring of ecological conditions of the lake is essential to document the evolution of this restored water body, which could serve as a more general model of what is possible in terms of restoring such damaged aquatic ecological systems elsewhere in the world (e.g., Salton Sea in California and Lake Chad in Africa).
* Measurements of Ph.Micklin indicate salinity is relatively even around the sea, except for the isolated Butakov Bay where levels are higher. This indicates good water circulation, no doubt owing to the Kok-Aral dike and dam that has forced the fresh water input from the Syrdarya to circulate throughout the lake rather than just flowing south and out of the Small Aral as it did prior to the emplacement of the dike and dam. Also, 2011 has so far been a dry year with diminished inflow to the Small Aral from the Syrdarya. Yet, the level has not dropped that much (about 1/2 meter as indicated by high water evidence along the shoreline) and salinity has remained surprisingly low. This suggests the sea can probably withstand the periodic cycles of low flow years without major level drops, major salinity increases, and significant ecological deterioration”.
Expedition route also covered Island of Barsakelmes: “The Island is now a plateau standing above this barren wasteland, with scattered salt-cedar and saksaul bushes breaking the monotony. The former island is considerably more vegetated than the surrounding dried sea bottom, but its flora and fauna have suffered serious degradation and simplification as the surrounding sea disappeared. Kulan (wild Asiatic Ass) used to roam the island, but owing to rapidly degrading habitat conditions, mainly lack of drinkable water, were moved to other locations in Kazakhstan in the mid-1980s”.
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