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Satellite photos show one of the world's largest lakes disappearing

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NASA

Satellite images from NASA show that over the last 14 years, one of the world's largest inland bodies of water, the Aral Sea in Central Asia, has almost completely dried up and disappeared.

The Aral Sea -- once the fourth-largest lake in the world -- has been shrinking since the 1960s, when the Soviet Union began diverting its waters to irrigate surrounding areas and transform the deserts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekisan and Turkmenistan into crop land.

The changes are dramatically documented in a series of images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite.

By 2000, when this sequence of satellite photos begins, a large portion of the sea had already been drained. Instead of a single large body of water, there were now two smaller ones: the Northern and Southern Aral Seas. The Southern Aral Sea shrunk further into two lobes connected by narrow channels at the top and bottom.

In ensuing years, the lobes get smaller and smaller. A drought from 2005 to 2009 accelerated the changes, NASA says. Also in 2005, Kazakhstan completed a dam project aimed at shoring up water supplies in the Northern Aral Sea at the expense of the southern portion. The most recent photo, from August 2014, shows just a thin sliver of water remaining on its western edge.

The loss of the once-great body of water has devastated the fishing communities that used to flourish along its banks. The sea's disappearance left behind dry, salty sand and dust, which have degraded nearby farmland and caused respiratory illness in local residents. According to NASA, the loss of the water's moderating influence has also led to more extreme temperatures in the region, making winters colder and summers hotter and drier.