The Caspian is the new Aral. What will the shallowing result in? – ANALYSIS

By Sabina Alizade

The fate of the Caspian Sea could be threatened similarly to the tragic fate of the Aral Sea if timely measures to protect its ecosystem are not implemented. The history of the Aral Sea serves as a cautionary example: once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral has dramatically decreased.

In recent years, the Caspian Sea has experienced significant fluctuations in water levels, causing concern among ecologists and the public. The retreat of water in Baku Bay has exposed the remains of a sunken ship, highlighting the severity of the situation. These fluctuations are linked to changes in the water balance, including reduced inflow from the Volga River, decreased precipitation, and increased evaporation due to rising temperatures, all indicative of climate change impacts. Ecologists warn of dramatic consequences for the ecosystem and millions of people if the water level continues to decline. Forecasts suggest that the level could drop by 9-18 meters, leading to irreversible changes in the ecosystem. Questions arise: Why is the water level decreasing, can this be prevented, and what steps are Caspian countries taking to prevent the sea from becoming shallower?

Head of Department of the Institute of Geography of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, Doctor of Geographical Sciences, Professor Amir Aliyev, discussed the current condition of the Caspian Sea in an interview with News.Az. He emphasized that the Caspian is the world's largest enclosed body of water, and its water levels are influenced by climatic shifts affecting the water balance. The water balance involves the ratio of incoming river water, evaporation rates, underground water contributions, and human impacts.

Professor Aliyev noted that annually, rivers contribute between 300 and 400 cubic kilometers of water to the Caspian, while underground sources add about 3 cubic kilometers. He also highlighted the role of atmospheric processes, including cyclones and anticyclones, which influence precipitation levels and consequently, the sea level. He emphasized that the Volga River, which is seeing a reduction in flow due to global warming, is a primary water source for the Caspian, increasing evaporation rates.

Additionally, Aliyev pointed to historical fluctuations in the Caspian Sea's level. From 1930 to 1995, the sea level dropped by 3 meters, followed by an increase of 2.5 meters between 1978 and 1995. Since 1995, there has been a further decrease of 2 meters. Sea level measurements in Azerbaijan have been ongoing since 1837, enabling historical comparisons that underscore the dynamic nature of the Caspian's hydrological environment.

Conclusively, the professor addressed the impact of global climatic changes on the Caspian, citing natural cooling and warming periods from the 14th to the 19th century that influenced sea levels. He also mentioned desalination technologies that are being employed to alleviate the pressure on the Caspian's water resources amid changing climatic conditions.

In his exclusive interview with News.Az, Mikhail Bolgov, Head of the Surface Water Modeling Laboratory, Institute of Water Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences, discussed the management of the Caspian Sea level in detail. He noted that long-term control by Russia is beyond reach due to complex interactions between climatic factors and human impacts.

The scientist emphasized that the key aspect is the impact of climate change, which leads to a decrease in river water inflow and an increase in evaporation from the Caspian Sea surface.

"Climatic conditions play a primary role in sea level changes, including air and water temperatures, which directly affect evaporation and precipitation processes," Bolgov stated. He also highlighted anthropogenic factors such as irreversible water losses from evaporation at reservoirs, irrigation of agricultural fields, and water supply to the population, which have been decreasing in Russia over recent decades, yet remain a significant issue for other regional countries like Iran and Azerbaijan.

In response to a question about funds allocated to combat sea level changes, Bolgov mentioned he was not aware of any major federal projects but pointed out the possibility of implementing local projects such as dredging and clearing fish passages to improve conditions for navigation and fish migration.

Moreover, the scientist suggested possible steps for Caspian region countries aimed at stabilizing sea levels, including blocking water inflow to the Kara-Bogaz-Gol Bay and reducing irreversible water extraction. According to him, these measures could help regulate water levels and prevent significant fluctuations.

Bolgov also emphasized the socio-economic consequences of changing sea levels, noting that they could include deteriorating navigational conditions, flooding risks, and damage to coastal ecosystems. "Changes in sea level could significantly impact the economy and social welfare of the region, requiring coordinated efforts from the states to adapt to these changes," he concluded.

Alina Ismagulova, the spokesperson for the National Hydrometeorological Service of Kazakhstan (Kazhydromet), announced in an interview with News.Az that, as of January 25, 2024, the government established the "Kazakhstan Caspian Sea Research Institute." The main goal of the new institute is to monitor the environment and conduct research focused on the protection and restoration of the Caspian Sea's natural resources, particularly in the Kazakh sector. A key task will be to strengthen scientific cooperation in this area.

Additionally, in 2020, Kazakhstan and Russia signed a Cooperation Program for 2021-2024 aimed at protecting and restoring the ecosystem of the Ural River basin (Transboundary Zhaiyk). The program includes activities such as canal and irrigation system reconstruction, forest restoration, unauthorized dumpsite elimination, shoreline protection, and other environmental initiatives. These actions are directed towards improving the river water supply and maintaining the Caspian Sea level.

Kazhydromet also regularly monitors the hydrometeorological conditions of the sea, including observing its level at 10 marine stations and posts, emphasized Ismagulova.

According to her, the declining sea level has already altered the Caspian Sea's coastline, particularly in the Kazakh sector, leading to negative consequences for the local ecosystem. The reduction in channel depths, decrease in river discharge locations, and increased salinity could significantly reduce fish feeding areas, leading to a decline in fishing and creating challenges in the industry.

P.S. Recent studies by scientists from Germany and the Netherlands, published in the prestigious journal "Nature," predict a dramatic drop in the Caspian Sea level by 9-18 meters by the end of the 21st century. This significant decline will result in a 23-34% reduction in the sea's surface area, completely drying out the Northern Caspian and the Turkmen shelf. Such changes will inevitably lead to considerable coastline recession in the southern and central parts of the sea, transforming the Kara-Bogaz-Gol Bay into a desert.

 Furthermore, a 2018 study by NASA scientists, also published in "Nature," suggests that at current rates of decline, the Caspian Sea could entirely disappear within the next 3,000 years, turning into a scenario similar to that of the Aral Sea, which has already experienced similar ecological catastrophes. These findings underscore the urgency of the issue.

 These alarming predictions highlight the need for international attention and immediate actions to assess and minimize the potential ecological and social impacts. Countries bordering the Caspian Sea must collaborate to develop strategies aimed at preserving this unique natural resource. International cooperation and coordinated research projects can offer solutions to this global environmental threat while maintaining economic stability and biodiversity in the region. Prompt and long-term strategies are essential not only to protect the ecosystem but also to ensure the sustainable development of the Caspian countries. 



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