Occasionally, I find myself examining side-by-side shots of the so-called “Aral Sea.” I’m beginning to think that its time to we, as Geographers, Politicians, Academics, and Private Citizens, stop referring to the various Aral Lakes as the “Aral Sea”.
As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a proscribed standard surface area, diameter, radius, or perimeter distinguishing between a lake and a sea. What they have in common is that they are large-ish bodies of water, fresh or salty. A lake is surrounded on all sides by land, while a sea is “definitely marked off by land boundaries” (thanks to Dictionary.com). This is why we have the Aral Sea, which is completely surrounded by land, and the North Sea, which isn’t. Generally though, seas are larger than lakes.
Compare the two images below, a composite of two satellite images taken in 1989 and 2008, further down is another image (from EOsnap.com) showing the “Aral Sea” in June 2013. The Earth Snapshot website also provides a link to a Columbia University webspace discussing the “Aral Sea Crisis.”
My point is purely the naming convention. I’m guessing its primarily out of a sense of tradition that we continue to use the term “Aral Sea” for what is clearly three different Aral Lakes. In addition to the tradition of the word, perhaps it is also to assuage our (humanity’s) own guilt. If we continue to refer to this as the Aral Sea I suppose we’re deluding ourselves (since most of us will never see it) into thinking that humans can’t possibly have this sort of affect on our natural environment. According to wikipedia, the Aral Sea had an area of over 26,000 sq. mi. in 1960. In 2004, the “four lakes” (East, West, Middle, North) had a combined area of 6,600 sq. mi.
As it turns out a number of “lakes” are larger than the “Aral Sea”, even when in it was a single body in 1960. Lake Superior (Canada and the U.S.) has a surface area of 31,000 sq. mi. Lake Ladoga (in Russia) the largest lake in Europe is larger than the four lakes of Aral, having a surface area of about 7,000 sq. mi.
Although some would argue that it would be a stretch to think that a simple name would have much impact on the world. I would argue that this name frames and defines (duh) our world and, more importantly, our place in it. Sure, we may continue to use “Aral Sea” out of hope that the Aral Sea will make a come back, but at the moment, it feels delusional. If not delusional, then it might just be a denial. A denial to the potential fact that we, humans, wrecked our environment.
The EOsnap’s image (taken in June 2013) below shows the four lakes of Aral in the upper right. The vast expanse of water on the left is the Caspian Sea.