Is the Caspian Sea really a lake?

Caspian Sea : Baku will probably only be on the water for a few decades

The boulevard of Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea hardly has to shy away from comparison with the Croisette, the famous boulevard of Cannes. Oil and gas made the Caucasus Republic of Azerbaijan rich. The country, which is run by the ruling family of the Aliyev in a similarly authoritarian manner as the oil monarchies on the Persian Gulf shows this wealth. It is particularly visible on Baku's boulevard with its luxury hotels, jewelers and expensive boutiques in the old houses with their magnificently restored stucco facades. You only have to walk across the street and through the narrow park, and you can walk along the sea.

But unlike Cannes, Baku will probably only be a city on the water for a few decades. Even the grandchildren of today's residents will have to walk a long way, probably a few kilometers, to the shore. At least that is the result of a model calculation that Matthias Prange from “Marum”, the center for maritime environmental sciences at the University of Bremen, published in December. According to his calculations, the level of the Caspian Sea will drop rapidly by nine to 18 meters by the end of the century. The Caspian Sea, which is actually the largest inland lake on earth, would lose up to a third of its current area.

The effect will be particularly strong in the north of the Caspian Sea

A group of Bremen scientists who have been investigating the situation in the countries of the region for some time now says that the sea level is sinking much faster than has been assumed in previous climate models. Just a few years ago, experts assumed that the water level would even rise. It has been known since ancient times that it fluctuates, even by several meters. The last period of years of rising water levels is not that long ago.

[If you want to have all the latest developments on the coronavirus crisis live on your mobile phone, we recommend our completely redesigned app, which you can download here for Apple and Android devices.]

The Bremen scientists are still sounding the alarm. For some years now, global warming has massively disturbed the balance between the inflow from the Volga and evaporation over the outflow-free lake. Much more water evaporates than the river, from which 90 percent of the fresh water comes, can supply. Russian scientists believe it doesn't have to stay that way, global warming also has another effect. They assume that in the next few years more rain will fall in the European part of Russia and that the Volga will carry more water. Prange has taken the prognosis into account in his model and says: “That will not be enough.” He did not even take into account the fact that Russian agriculture, which was on the ground in the 1990s, will need more water from the Volga once it has stabilized .

If the level drops, Baku will fare comparatively well, says Marum biologist Thomas Wilke. The effect will be particularly strong in the shallow brackish water regions in the north of the Caspian Sea. According to the calculations, tens of thousands of square kilometers fall dry there. "Today it is a unique biotope, a laboratory for evolutionary biologists, with many endemic species, meaning animals that only occur here," enthuses Wilke. The Caspian seal is just the most famous of them. "We're losing them now," he fears. And with them probably also the flamingo populations. Things are also looking bleak for the sturgeon, even if it is often kept in aquaculture today.

The effects of siltation are well known from the disappearance of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. Billions have been invested to save at least a small part - and yet the consequences are devastating. Large areas are now desert, the soil has been poisoned by the salt of the lake. Agriculture is not possible there, the people in the region are increasingly suffering from respiratory diseases. There is also experience in the Caspian Sea itself. In the past century, the Kara Bogas Gol lagoon in the east of the sea was sealed off with a dam, among other things to extract salt cheaply. It silted up within a very short time. When the salt storms devastated the country here too, pipes were laid at great expense in order to flood the “Nebensee” again. “The Kara Bogas Gol will dry out quickly, in a few years,” says Prange.

Kazakhstan and Russia in particular are affected

So far, the danger to the population and politicians in the affected countries is not even aware, is the experience that Prange, Wilke and the employees of their team have made during their travels. “Where should it come from? People have their traditional, generation-to-generation experience: the sea level falls, then it rises again, ”says Wilke. On the Iranian coast, the residents would even live with a "trauma of rising water levels". In the past, this often led to floods. “It seems to me that politicians in some of the countries still have the idea: Well, it won't hit us as hard as it does our neighbors,” says Wilke. In fact, according to the calculations, it is mainly Kazakhstan and Russia that are affected.

[All important updates of the day on the coronavirus can be found in the free Tagesspiegel newsletter "Questions of the day". Plus the most important news, reading recommendations and debates. To register, click here.]

The Bremen scientists call for the work of international expert groups to check their data and to react quickly. But the prospects are not good. It took more than 20 years of negotiations before the neighboring countries agreed two years ago on the division of the Caspian Sea with its current shores. If the water level drops rapidly, this agreement will be obsolete, which will almost inevitably lead to new conflicts of interest, the experts are convinced. If the diplomats need another 20 years now, it will be too late.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page