The Caspian Sea
( , , ) is the largest enclosed
body of water on Earth
by area, variously
classed as the world's largest
or a full-fledged sea
. The sea has a
surface area of 371,000 square kilometres (143,244 sq mi
) and a volume of 78,200 cubic
kilometres (18,761 cu mi). It is in an endorheic basin (it has no outflows) and is
bounded by northern Iran, southern
Russia, western Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and eastern Azerbaijan.
It has a maximum depth of about 1,025
metres (3,363 ft).
The ancient inhabitants of its littoral perceived the Caspian as an
ocean, probably because of its saltiness and seeming boundlessness.
It has a salinity
of approximately 1.2%,
about a third the salinity of most seawater
. According to Strabo
, the sea was named after an ancient people
) . Caspian is called Qazvin
(قزوين or بحر قزوين) on ancient
In Iran, it is sometimes referred to as Daryâ-ye
Sea, the Caspian Sea is a remnant of the ancient
The Caspian Sea
became landlocked about 5.5 million years ago due to tectonic uplift
and a fall in sea level
. During warm and dry climatic periods,
the landlocked sea has all but dried up, depositing evaporitic sediments
that have become covered by wind-blown
deposits and were sealed off as an evaporite sink when cool, wet
climates refilled the basin. Due to the current inflow of fresh
water, the Caspian Sea is a fresh-water lake in its northern
portions. It is more saline on the Iranian shore, where the
catchment basin contributes little flow. Currently, the mean
salinity of the Caspian is one third that of the Earth's oceans.
Garabogazköl embayment, which dried up
when water flow from the main body of the Caspian was blocked in
the 1980s but has since been restored, routinely exceeds oceanic
salinity by a factor of 10.
The Caspian Sea is the largest inland body of water in the world
and accounts for 40 to 44 percent of the total lacustrine
waters of the world. The coastlines of the
Caspian are shared by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and
The Caspian is divided into three distinct
physical regions: the Northern, Middle, and Southern Caspian. The
North-Middle boundary is the Mangyshlak threshold, which runs
through Chechen Island and Cape Tiub-Karagan. The Middle-South
boundary is the Apsheron threshold, a sill of tectonic origin that
runs through Zhiloi Island and Cape Kuuli. The Garabogazköl bay is the saline eastern inlet of the Caspian,
which is part of Turkmenistan and at times has been a lake in its
own right due to the isthmus which cuts it off from the
Divisions between the three regions are dramatic. The Northern
Caspian only includes the Caspian shelf, and is characterized as
very shallow; it accounts for less than one percent of the total
water volume with an average depth of only . The sea noticeably
drops off towards the Middle Caspian, where the average depth is .
The Southern Caspian is the deepest, with a depth that reaches over
. The Middle and Southern Caspian account for 33 percent and 66
percent of the total water volume, respectively. The northern
portion of the Caspian Sea typically freezes in the winter, and in
the coldest winters, ice will form in the south.
Over 130 rivers provide inflow to the Caspian, with the Volga River
being the largest. The Caspian also
has several small islands; they are primarily located in the North
and have a collective land area of roughly . Adjacent to the North
Caspian is the Caspian
Depression, a low-lying region below sea
The Central Asian
stretch across the northeast coast,
while the Caucasus mountains
the Western shore. The biomes
to both the
north and east are characterized by cold, continental deserts.
Conversely, the climate to the southwest and south are generally
warm with uneven elevation due to a mix of highlands and mountain ranges
; the drastic changes in
climate alongside the Caspian have led to a great deal of biodiversity
in the region.
The Caspian Sea holds great numbers of sturgeon
, which yield eggs
are processed into caviar
. In recent years
overfishing has threatened the sturgeon population to the point
banning sturgeon fishing completely until the population recovers.
However, the high price of sturgeon caviar allows fisherman to
afford bribes to ensure the authorities look the other way, making
regulations in many locations ineffective. Caviar harvesting
further endangers the fish stocks, since it targets reproductive
The Caspian seal
, Pusa caspica
in some sources), which is
to the Caspian Sea, is one
of very few seal species
that live in
inland waters (see also Baikal seal
The area has given its name to several species of birds, including
the Caspian gull
and the Caspian tern
. There are several species and subspecies
of fish endemic to the Caspian Sea, including the Kktum (also known as Caspian white fish), Caspian roach, Caspian bream
(some report that the Bream occurring in the Aral Sea is the same subspecies), and a Caspian "salmon" (a
subspecies of trout, Salmo
The "Caspian salmon" is
The Volga River
, the largest in Europe,
drains 20% of the European land area and is the source of 80% of
the Caspian’s freshwater inflow. Its lower reaches are heavily
developed with numerous unregulated releases of chemical and
biological pollutants. Although existing data is sparse and of
questionable quality, there is ample evidence to suggest that the
Volga is one of the principal sources of transboundary contaminants
into the Caspian. The magnitude of oil and gas extraction and
transport activity constitutes a risk to water quality. Underwater
oil and gas pipelines have been constructed or proposed, increasing
potential environmental threats.
The Caspian has characteristics common to both seas and lakes
. It is often listed as the world's largest lake,
though it is not a freshwater
Caspian became landlocked about 5.5 million years ago due to
. The Volga River
(about 80% of the inflow) and the
discharge into the Caspian
Sea, but it has no natural outflow other than by evaporation
. Thus the Caspian ecosystem
is a closed
, with its own sea level history that is independent of
level of the world's oceans.
The level of the Caspian has fallen and risen, often rapidly, many
times over the centuries. Some Russian historians claim that a
rising of the Caspian caused the
coastal towns of Khazaria
, such as Atil
, to flood. In 2004, the water level was
-28 metres, or 28 metres (92 ft) below sea level
Over the centuries, Caspian Sea levels have changed in
synchronicity with the estimated discharge of the Volga, which in
turn depends on rainfall levels in its vast catchment basin.
Precipitation is related to variations in the amount of North
Atlantic depressions that reach the interior, and they in turn are
affected by cycles of the North Atlantic Oscillation
levels in the Caspian sea relate to atmospheric conditions in the
North Atlantic thousands of miles to the north and west. These
factors make the Caspian Sea a valuable place to study the causes
and effects of global climate change.
The last short-term sea-level cycle started with a sea-level fall
of 3 m from 1929 to 1977, followed by a rise of 3 m from 1977 until
1995. Since then smaller oscillations have taken place.
Discoveries in the Huto cave near the town of
Behshahr, Mazandaran south of the Caspian in Iran, suggest human
habitation of the area as early as 75,000 years ago.
In classical antiquity
Greeks and Persians it was called the Hyrcanian Ocean
. In Persian antiquity,
as well as in modern Iran, it is known
as the Mazandaran sea (Persian مازندران).
speaking countries it is known as the Khazar Sea
. Old Russian sources call it the
Khvalyn (Khvalynian) Sea
(Хвалынское море /Хвалисское
море) after the Khvalis, inhabitants of Khwarezmia
. Ancient Arabic sources refer to Baḥr
Qazvīn - the Caspian/Qazvin
The word Caspian is derived from the name of the Caspi
(Persian کاسپی), an ancient people that lived to
the west of the sea in Transcaucasia
wrote that "to the country of the
Albanians belongs also the territory called Caspiane, which was
named after the Caspian tribe, as was also the sea; but the tribe
has now disappeared". Moreover, the Caspian Gate, which is the
name of a region in Tehran province of Iran, is another
possible piece of evidence that they migrated to the south of the
Historic cities by the sea include
Cities near the Caspian Sea
Major cities by the Caspian Sea:
Caspian Sea shore, near Bandar Anzali,
The Caspian Sea has numerous islands throughout. Ogurja Ada, is the largest island.
It has a length of
47 km and there are gazelles
roaming free in
the interior of the island.
North Caspian the majority of the islands are small and uninhabited
islands, like the Tyuleniy Archipelago, an Important Bird
Area (IBA), though some of them do have human
Many of the islands near the Azerbaijan coast hold significant
geopolitical and economic importance, due to their oil reserves.
is off the coast of
Azerbaijan, and holds tremendous oil reserves. Pirallahı
Island, off the Azerbaijani coast as well, also
possesses oil reserves; it was one of the first places in
Azerbaijan that was found to have oil, and was the first place in
the Caspian Sea to have sectional drilling done.
Nargin was used
as a former Soviet base and
is the largest island in the Baku bay.
Ashuradeh is situated on the easternmost end of Miankaleh
peninsula to the north east of Gorgan Bay, near the Iranian
It was separated from the peninsula after islanders
created a channel.
Various islands, particularly around Azerbaijan, have suffered
extensive environmental damage due to oil production. Vulf, for
example, has had its ecosystem severely damaged due to neighboring
islands' oil production, although Caspian
seals and various species of marine birds continue to inhabit
The Caspian area is rich in energy resources. Wells were being dug
in the region as early as the 10th century. By the 1500s Europeans
were aware of the rich oil and gas deposits around the area.
English traders Thomas Bannister and Jeffrey Duckett described the
area around Baku as “a strange thing to behold, for there issueth
out of the ground a marvelous quantity of oil, which serveth all
the country to burn in their houses. This oil is black and is
called nefte. There is also by the town of Baku, another kind of
oil which is white and very precious (i.e., petroleum
The world’s first offshore wells and machine-drilled wells were
made in Bibi-Heybat Bay, near Baku, Azerbaijan. In 1873 exploration
and development of oil began in some of the largest fields known to
exist in the world at that time on the Absheron peninsula near the villages of Balakhanli, Sabunchi, Ramana
and Bibi Heybat.
Total recoverable reserves at that time
number more than 500 million tons. By 1900 Baku had more than 3,000
oil wells, 2,000 of which were producing at industrial levels. By
the end of the 19th Baku's fame as the "Black Gold Capital" was
spreading throughout of the world, causing many skilled workers and
specialists to flock to the city
By the turn of the 20th century, Baku was the global center for the
international oil industry. In 1920, when the Bolsheviks
captured Azerbaijan, all private
property - including oil wells and factories - was confiscated.
that, the republic's entire oil industry was directed towards the
purposes of the Soviet
By 1941 Azerbaijan was producing a record
23.5 million tons of oil, and the Baku region supplied nearly 72%
of all oil extracted in the entire USSR.
In 1994 the "Contract
of the Century
" was signed, signaling the start of major
international development of the Baku oil fields. The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan
pipeline, a major pipeline allowing Azerbaijan oil to flow
straight to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, opened in
The oil in the Caspian basin is estimated to be worth over US $12
trillion. The sudden collapse of the USSR and subsequent opening of
the region has led to an intense investment and development
scramble by international oil companies. In 1998 Dick Cheney
commented that "I can't think of a
time when we've had a region emerge as suddenly to become as
strategically significant as the Caspian."
A key problem to further development in the region is the status of
the Caspian Sea and the establishment of the water boundaries among
the five littoral states (see below
). The current
disputes along Azerbaijan's maritime borders with Turkmenistan and
Iran could potentially affect future development plans.
Much controversy currently exists over the proposed Trans-Caspian
pipelines. These projects
would allow western markets easier access to Kazakh oil, and
potentially Uzbek and Turkmen gas as well. The United States has given its support for the pipelines.
Russia officially opposes the project on environmental grounds.
Analysts note that the pipelines would bypass Russia completely,
thereby denying the country valuable transit fees, as well as
destroying its current monopoly on westward-bound hydrocarbon
exports from the region. Recently both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan
have expressed their support for the Trans-Caspian Pipeline.
Existing and proposed canals
the Caspian Sea is endorheic, its main
tributary, Volga, is connected by important
shipping canals with the
Don River (and thus
the Black Sea) and with the Baltic Sea, with branch canals to Northern Dvina and to the White
Caspian tributary, the Kuma
River, is connected by an irrigation canal with the Don basin as well.
Canals proposed in the past
Main Turkmen Canal, construction
of which was started in 1950, would run from Nukus on the
Amu-Darya to Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea.
It would be used not
only for irrigation, but also for shipping, connecting the
Amu-Darya and the Aral Sea with the Caspian. The project was
abandoned soon after the death of Joseph
Stalin, in favor of the Qaraqum Canal, which runs on a more southerly route and does not
reach the Caspian.
Since the 1930s through the 1980s, the projects for a Pechora-Kama Canal
were widely discussed,
and some construction experiments
using nuclear explosions
were conducted in 1971. For this project, shipping was a secondary
consideration; the main goal was to redirect some of the water of the
River (which flows into the Arctic Ocean) via the Kama into the
The goals were both irrigation and stabilizing the
water level in the Caspian, which was thought to be falling
dangerously fast at the time.
2007, in order to boost his oil-rich country's access to markets,
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev proposed a
700 km link between the Caspian and
It is hoped that the "Eurasia Canal
" (Manych Ship Canal
)) would transform the
landlocked Kazakhstan and other Central
countries into maritime states, enabling them to
significantly increase trade volume. While the canal would
traverse Russian territory, it would benefit Kazakhstan through its
Caspian Sea ports.The most likely route for the canal, the
officials at the Committee on Water Resources at Kazakhstan's
Agriculture Ministry say, would follow the Kuma-Manych Depression, where
currently a chain of rivers and lakes is already connected by an
irrigation canal (Kuma-Manych Canal). Upgrading the Volga-Don Canal would be another option.
Negotiations related to the demarcation of the Caspian Sea have
been going on for nearly a decade now among the littoral states
bordering the Caspian - Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan,
Turkmenistan and Iran.The status of the Caspian Sea is the key
problem. There are three major issues regulated by
the Caspian Sea status: access to mineral resources (oil and natural gas),
access for fishing and access to international waters (through Russia's Volga river and the canals connecting it to the
Sea and Baltic
Sea). Access to the Volga River is particularly
important for the landlocked states of
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This issue is of course sensitive to
Russia, because this potential traffic will move through
its territory (albeit onto the inland waterways).
If a body of water is labeled as
then there would be some precedents and
international treaties obliging the granting of access permits to
foreign vessels. If a body of water is labeled merely as lake
then there are no such obligations. Environmental
issues are also
somewhat connected to the status and borders
be mentioned that Russia got the bulk
of the former Soviet Caspian military
fleet (and also currently has the most powerful military
presence in the Caspian Sea). Some assets were
assigned to Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan and especially Turkmenistan got a very small share because they lack major port
Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan announced that they do not consider themselves
parties to this treaty.
- According to a treaty
signed between Iran (Persia) and the
Soviet Union, the Caspian Sea is technically a lake and it is to be
divided into two sectors (Persian and Russian), but the resources
(then mainly fish) would be commonly
shared. The line between the two sectors was to be
seen as an international border in a common lake, like Lake Albert. Also the Russian sector was sub-divided
into administrative sectors of the four littoral republics.
the dissolution of the Soviet
Union not all of the newly
independent states assumed continuation of the old
treaty. At first Russia and Iran announced
that they would continue to adhere to the old treaty (but they
don't have a common border any more, so this is practically
- Even though it is the old Soviet Union that has lost
territories such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, Iran
has called for an equal division of the Caspian Sea among the five
countries: Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
Since this has been ignored and largely suppressed by Russia’s
military intimidation against Iran, now Iran intends to only
recognize its old treaty (between Iran and Russia) and will
challenge Russia to divide its 50% share among the three littoral
states - Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan - over a more
friendlier position toward the West and the U.S, such as opening of
U.S interest section in Tehran.
Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have agreed to a solution about their
sectors. There are no problems between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, but the latter is not actively participating, so
there is no agreement either. Azerbaijan is at odds with Iran over some
oil fields that the both states
- Later followed some proposals for common agreement between all
littoral states about the status of the sea.
- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan insisted that the sectors should be based on the
median line, thus giving each state a
share proportional to its Caspian coastline length. Also the sectors would
form part of the sovereign territory of the particular state (thus
making them international borders and also allowing each state to
deal with all resources within its sector as it wishes
- Iran insisted
that the sectors should be such that each state gets a 1/5th share
of the whole Caspian Sea. This was advantageous to Iran,
because it has a proportionally smaller coastline.
- Russia proposed a
somewhat compromising solution: the seabed (and thus mineral
resources) to be divided along sectoral lines (along the two
above-described variants), the surface (and thus fishing rights) to
be shared between all states (with the following variations: the
whole surface to be commonly shared; each state to receive an
exclusive zone and one single common zone in the center to be
shared. The second variant is deemed not practical, because
of the small size of the whole sea).
- Current situation
There have been occasions where Iranian patrol boats
have opened fire at vessels sent by Azerbaijan for exploration into
the disputed region. There are similar tensions between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan (the latter claims that the former has pumped more
oil than agreed from a field, recognized by both parties as
shared). Less acute are the issues between Turkmenistan and Iran.
Regardless, the southern part of the sea remains disputed.
Russia adopted the median line
sectoral division and the three treaties already signed between
some littoral states this is looking like the realistic method for
regulating the Caspian borders.
- Russia and Kazakhstan signed a treaty, according to which, they divide
the northern part of the Caspian Sea between them into two sectors
along the median line. Each sector is an exclusive zone of
its state. Thus all resources, seabed and surface are exclusive to
the particular state.
- Russia and Azerbaijan signed a similar treaty about their common
- Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan signed a similar treaty about their common
- Iran doesn't
recognize the bilateral agreements between the other littoral
states. Iran continues to
insist on a single multilateral agreement between all five littoral
states (as the only way to achieve 1/5-th share).
position of Turkmenistan is unclear.
The Russian sector is fully
defined. The Kazakhstan sector is not fully defined, but is not
disputed either. Azerbaijan's, Turkmenistan's and Iran's sectors
are not fully defined. It is not clear if the issue of
Volga-access to vessels from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan is covered by their agreements with Russia and also what the conditions are for Volga-access
for vessels from Turkmenistan and Iran.
The Caspian littoral States meeting in 2007 signed an agreement
that bars any ship not flying the national flag of a littoral state
from entering Caspian waters.
Several scheduled ferry
) operate on the Caspian
- Lake Profile: Caspian Sea.
- Strabo, 11.2.15. Strabo gives a lost work of Eratosthenes as his
- In system dynamics, a sink is a place where a
flow of materials ends its journey, removed from the system.
- Comparable evaporite beds underlie the Mediterranean.
- Amirahmadi, Hooshang. The Caspian Region at a Crossroad:
Challenges of a New Frontier of Energy and Development
(Hardcover). Page 112. St. Martin's Press. Accessed
- Khain V. E. Gadjiev A. N. Kengerli T. N, "Tectonic origin of
the Apsheron Threshold in the Caspian Sea" Doklady Earth
Sciences 414.4 (June 2007:552-556).
- Dumont, Henri J. et al. Aquatic Invasions in the Black,
Caspian, and Mediterranean Seas (Nato Science Series). Kluwer
Academic Publishers. Accessed 28-01-2008.
- Kostianoy, Andrey and Aleksey N. Kosarev. The Caspian Sea
Environment (Hardcover). Springer. Accessed 28-01-2008.
- "General background of the Caspian Sea". Caspian
Environment Program. Accessed 29-01-2008.
- Caspian Environment Programme
- Welcome to the Caspian Sea Level Project
- Caspian Sea. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved
August 13, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service:
- Strabo. Geography. 11.3.1
- The Development of the Oil and Gas Industry in
- Back to the Future: Britain, Baku Oil and the Cycle
of History SOCAR
- The Great Gas Game Christian Science Monitor
(October 25, 2001)
- Russia Tries to Scuttle Proposed Trans-Caspian
- Russia Seeking To Keep Kazakhstan Happy
- Nikolaĭ Gavrilovich Kharin, "Vegetation Degradation in Central
Asia Under the Impact of Human Activities". Pp. 56-58. Springer,
2002. ISBN 1402003978. On
- Caspian Canal Could Boost Kazakh Trade
Week, July 9, 2007.
- 8.3 The Status of the Caspian Sea - Dividing
Natural Resources Between Five Countries - Khoshbakht
- Russia Gets Way In Caspian Meet
- Gurbanov, Turab. Le pétrole de la Caspienne et la politique
extérieure de l'Azerbaïdjan: tome 1- Questions économiques et
juridiques, l’Harmattan, 2007, 304 pages.
- Gurbanov, Turab. Le pétrole de la Caspienne et la politique
extérieure de l'Azerbaïdjan: tome 2- Questions géopolitiques,
l’Harmattan, 2007, 297 pages.
- Author=Shiryayev, Boris|Title=Großmaechte auf dem Weg zur neuen
Konfrontation?. Das „Great Game“ am Kaspischen Meer: eine
Untersuchung der neuen Konfliktlage am Beispiel
Kasachstan|Publisher=Verlag Dr. Kovac|Place=Hamburg|Year=2008