Culture

Crisis In The Caspian Sea: Major Threat to Biodiversity

In Orkney, rising sea levels and coastal erosion are a major concern and a threat to iconic historical sites like Skara Brae in West Mainland.

For the world’s largest lake – the Caspian Sea – the threat is quite the opposite. Dropping levels there are threatening the biodiversity of the region which also supports over 100million people.

The Caspian Sea is a land-locked lake, but it is the largest on the planet (371.000 km2), and quite salty.  Since the 1990’s, the water level has been dropping a few centimeters every year. This drop will accelerate during the upcoming decades.

Map showing the exact locations of Caspian Sea surface change. Credit: Prange et al.

The disastrous drop in the water level of the Caspian Sea is being documented and researched by scientists from the German universities of Gießen and Bremen together with Dutch geologist Frank Wesselingh.

Frank Wesselingh explained:

“If the North Sea would drop two or three meters, access to ports like Rotterdam, Hamburg and London would be impeded. Fishing boats and container giants alike would struggle, and all the countries on the North Sea would have a huge problem.

“Here, we are talking about a decrease of no less than nine meters – in the best case scenario.”

In the worst case scenario, the drop will be eighteen meters, and the Caspian Sea will lose over a third of its surface area.

In the journal Communications Earth & Environment, the three scientists are calling for action. Increased evaporation and the loss of sea ice in the winter will accelerate water level drop, they explain.

This will affect the unique ecosystems in the area, with their migratory birds, beluga and the endemic Caspian seal, that raises its puppies on the sea ice in the North of the Caspian Sea.

The Caspian Sea is the natural habitat of the Caspian seal, whose pups can only survive on ice. The parts of the sea that freeze over will diminish by 98% over the course of the 21st century.

It will also have dire consequences for the millions of people living near the sea, or around the rivers that run into it.

Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan all share a piece of the Caspian Sea, and would have to make new agreements on borders and fishing rights.

Wesselingh and his German colleagues urge the formation of an international task force, led by the United Nations Environmental Programme, that would coordinate the mitigation of this problem.

Their article goes on to say:

“This aspect of climate change – falling levels of lakes -could be similarly devastating as global sea level rise.

“Immediate and coordinated action is required to make up for valuable time lost. The shrinking Caspian Sea might serve as a poster child of the problem, and will help to galvanize such actions.”

Infographic showing the effects of water level change in the Caspian Sea area. Credit Naturalis

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