Caspian Sea-Level Rise: An Environmental Emergency

Senior Assistant Secretary
IOC Secretariat
1 Rue Miollis
Paris 75732 Cedex 15

The rapid rise of the Caspian Sea level ( about 2.25 meters since 1978) has caused great concern to all five surrounding countries: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. Endowed with an oil-rich basin and one of the planet's most biologically productive water bodies, the region is characterized by many big cities and other human settlements along the sea coastal line.

In the coastal zone, flooding has ruined or damaged buildings and other engineering structures, roads, beaches and much farm land. This flooding has been aggravated by intensified storm surges. In addition to the danger posed to oil fields ( Kazakstan and Azerbaijan), the sea-level rise results in changes in: water regime, hydrochemical regime of river mouths, dynamics and chemical composition of groundwater, structure and productivity of biological communities in the littoral and in river mouths, sediment deposition patterns, pollution by heavy metals, petroleum products, synthetic organic substances, radioactive isotopes and other substances.

The cost, already sunstantial, of preventive measures against the rising water level will increase dramatically for all riparian countries.

From 9 to 12 May 1995 in Paris the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission jointly with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in cooperation with the International Hydrological Programme of UNESCO organized a Workshop on the causes of sea-level rise in the Caspian Sea and the international cooperation required to tackle the problem. The Workshop was attended by specialists from the all riparian countries of the Caspian Sea plus France and reperesentatives of IOC, IAEA, IHP, and WMO. Scientific and technical presentations were made on the causes of the sea-level rise and its implication on the coastal zone and environmental processes in the Caspian Sea. The presentations made showed that despite many years of study, knowledge of the causes of the Sea's water level rise and fall is still very limited to make reliable predictions for future. The main pecularity is the suddenness of the changes.Two such changes have been observed since 1830, when sea-level measurements began: (i) 1933-1941, a decrease of 170cm occurred, and (ii) 1978-1994 saw a rise of 225cm.

The participants of the Workshop agreed on some basic ideas regarding future studies of the causes of the sea-level rise which include variation of water balance components; changes in global and regional climate parameters; water dynamics of the sea body; tectonic/geological effects. The detailed knowledge of the water balance was deemed critical for assessing and predicting of sea-level changes.

As the first practical step in improving the understanding of the causes of sea-level rise and its implications the participants agreed to initiate the Regional Caspian Sea project proposed by IAEA and supported by IOC. The project includes the application of nuclear methodologies based on the analysis of isotope tracers (both radioactive and stable) and trace elements for the study of water balance and transport of moisture in the region; dynamics of sea water and sediment transport; pollution of water body and sediments by both radiactive and non- radioactive substances; impact of rising sea level on coastal groundwater resources; exploring Caspian Sea sedimentary sequence as a natural archive of past climatic and environmental changes. This new approach and tools will be supplemented by traditional oceanographic, hydrological and meteorological observations and analyses. The project includes also training and analytical quality control assistance offered by IAEA. The participants discussed and prepared a coordinated work plan on joint activities of the countries to be undertaken in 1995-1996 within the framework of a feasibility study for the above project. The study includes research/training cruises; sea-level and other oceanographic and marine meteorological observations and sampling at selected coastal stations and a Workshop in 1996 to review the results of the initial phase of the feasibility study.

It was realized that further cooperative efforts would be required by the riparian countries of the region to tackle the Caspian Sea problem associated with the sea-level rise.The participants therefore formulated proposals for future cooperative programme, which includes cooperative research in assessing the role of various factors in sea-level chages and developing predictive models, establishment of a coordinated monitoring system in the region with the use of modern technology, establishment of a regional system for multidisciplinary data and information exchange; training activities, and establishment a coordinating mechanism.

In relation to the sea-level observations the participants emphasised the need to establish a network of key stations equipped with modern technology for sea-level measurements to be connected to a global geodetic reference system which is crucial for understanding of the causes of the sea-level changes. Caspian sea is not a part of the GLOSS system. Nevertherless advise and assistance from the countries, involved in GLOSS, could help in solving this regional problem.

In recent years a number of agencies (UNEP, WMO,IAEA, UNESCO, World Bank, UNDP, WHO, and IMO) have conducted missions and meetings and have initiated projects related to this problem. A call was made at the Workshop for all actors to co-operate closely in a multidisciplinary, multi-sectorial approach to the solution of the Caspian Sea environmental problem caused by rapid sea-level rise.

The report of the Workshop as well as submitted papers will be published by IOC and can be obtained from the IOC Secretariat at the address shown above or:

Fax: (33)(1) 40 56 93 16
Tel: (33)(1) 45 68 39 78

Further information on the Caspian Sea Regional project and application of isotope techniques for environmental studies can be obtained from:

Section on Isotope Hydrology
Department of Research and Isotopes
IAEA, Wagramerstrasse 5
P.O.Box 100
A-1400, Vienna, Austria.
Tel: 43-1-2360; Fax: 43-1-2345 64