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The Caspian Sea ( , , ) is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth by area, variously classed as the world's largest lake 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 Iranmarker, southern Russiamarker, western Kazakhstanmarker and Turkmenistanmarker, and eastern Azerbaijanmarker. 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 called Kashyapas (Sanskrit) . Caspian is called Qazvinmarker (قزوين or بحر قزوين) on ancient maps. In Iran, it is sometimes referred to as Daryâ-ye Mâzandarân (دریای مازندران).

Geological history

Like the Black Seamarker, the Caspian Sea is a remnant of the ancient Paratethys Sea. 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 like halite 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. The Garabogazkölmarker 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 Azerbaijanmarker, Iranmarker, Kazakhstanmarker, Russiamarker, and Turkmenistanmarker. 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 Garabogazkölmarker 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 Caspian.

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 Depressionmarker, a low-lying region below sea level. The Central Asian steppes stretch across the northeast coast, while the Caucasus mountains hug 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 that are processed into caviar. In recent years overfishing has threatened the sturgeon population to the point that environmentalists advocate 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 females.

The Caspian seal (Phoca caspica, Pusa caspica in some sources), which is endemic 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 Seamarker is the same subspecies), and a Caspian "salmon" (a subspecies of trout, Salmo trutta caspiensis). The "Caspian salmon" is critically endangered.

Environmental issues

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.

Hydrological characteristics

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 lake. The Caspian became landlocked about 5.5 million years ago due to plate tectonics. The Volga River (about 80% of the inflow) and the Ural River discharge into the Caspian Sea, but it has no natural outflow other than by evaporation. Thus the Caspian ecosystem is a closed basin, with its own sea level history that is independent of the eustatic 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 medieval 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. Thus 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.

Human history

Discoveries in the Huto cave near the town of Behshahrmarker, Mazandaranmarker south of the Caspian in Iran, suggest human habitation of the area as early as 75,000 years ago.

In classical antiquity among Greeks and Persians it was called the Hyrcanian Ocean. In Persian antiquity, as well as in modern Iranmarker, it is known as the Mazandaranmarker sea (Persian مازندران). In Turkic 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/Qazvinmarker Sea.

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. Strabo 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 provincemarker of Iranmarker, is another possible piece of evidence that they migrated to the south of the sea.

Historic cities by the sea include

Cities near the Caspian Sea

Major cities by the Caspian Sea:
Caspian Sea shore, near Bandar Anzali, Iran


The Caspian Sea has numerous islands throughout. Ogurja Adamarker, is the largest island. It has a length of 47 km and there are gazelles roaming free in the interior of the island.

In the North Caspian the majority of the islands are small and uninhabited islands, like the Tyuleniy Archipelagomarker, an Important Bird Area (IBA), though some of them do have human settlers.

Many of the islands near the Azerbaijan coast hold significant geopolitical and economic importance, due to their oil reserves. Bulla Island is off the coast of Azerbaijan, and holds tremendous oil reserves. Pirallahı Islandmarker, 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. Narginmarker was used as a former Sovietmarker base and is the largest island in the Bakumarker bay. Ashuradehmarker is situated on the easternmost end of Miankaleh peninsula to the north east of Gorgan Bay, near the Iranian coast. 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. Vulfmarker, 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 it.

Hydrocarbon resources

Historical development

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 peninsulamarker 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. After that, the republic's entire oil industry was directed towards the purposes of the Soviet Unionmarker. 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 Turkishmarker Mediterraneanmarker port of Ceyhanmarker, opened in 2006.

Current issues

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 oil and gas pipelines. These projects would allow western markets easier access to Kazakh oil, and potentially Uzbek and Turkmen gas as well. The United Statesmarker 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

Although the Caspian Sea is endorheic, its main tributary, Volga, is connected by important shipping canals with the Don Rivermarker (and thus the Black Sea) and with the Baltic Seamarker, with branch canals to Northern Dvina and to the White Seamarker.

Another Caspian tributary, the Kuma River, is connected by an irrigation canalmarker with the Don basin as well.

Canals proposed in the past

The Main Turkmen Canal, construction of which was started in 1950, would run from Nukusmarker on the Amu-Daryamarker to Krasnovodskmarker 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 Canalmarker, 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 Pechora Rivermarker (which flows into the Arctic Oceanmarker) via the Kama into the Volga. The goals were both irrigation and stabilizing the water level in the Caspian, which was thought to be falling dangerously fast at the time.

Eurasia Canal

In June 2007, in order to boost his oil-rich country's access to markets, Kazakhstanmarker's President Nursultan Nazarbaev proposed a 700 km link between the Caspian and Black seasmarker. It is hoped that the "Eurasia Canal" (Manych Ship Canal)) would transform the landlocked Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries into maritime states, enabling them to significantly increase trade volume. While the canal would traverse Russianmarker 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 Canalmarker). Upgrading the Volga-Don Canalmarker would be another option.

International disputes

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 Russiamarker's Volga river and the canals connecting it to the Black Seamarker and Baltic Seamarker). Access to the Volga River is particularly important for the landlocked states of Azerbaijanmarker, Kazakhstanmarker and Turkmenistanmarker. This issue is of course sensitive to Russiamarker, because this potential traffic will move through its territory (albeit onto the inland waterways). If a body of water is labeled as Sea 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 issue.

It should be mentioned that Russiamarker 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 Azerbaijanmarker. Kazakhstanmarker and especially Turkmenistanmarker got a very small share because they lack major port cities.
  • According to a treaty signed between Iranmarker (Persiamarker) 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 Albertmarker. Also the Russian sector was sub-divided into administrative sectors of the four littoral republics.
  • After the dissolution of the Soviet Unionmarker not all of the newly independent states assumed continuation of the old treaty. At first Russiamarker and Iranmarker 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 impossible).
  • 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.
Kazakhstanmarker, Azerbaijanmarker and Turkmenistanmarker announced that they do not consider themselves parties to this treaty.
  • Later followed some proposals for common agreement between all littoral states about the status of the sea.
    • Azerbaijanmarker, Kazakhstanmarker and Turkmenistanmarker 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 unilaterally).
    • Iranmarker 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.
    • Russiamarker 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
Russiamarker, Kazakhstanmarker and Azerbaijanmarker have agreed to a solution about their sectors. There are no problems between Kazakhstanmarker and Turkmenistanmarker, but the latter is not actively participating, so there is no agreement either. Azerbaijanmarker is at odds with Iranmarker over some oil fields that the both states claim. 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 Azerbaijanmarker and Turkmenistanmarker (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 Turkmenistanmarker and Iranmarker. Regardless, the southern part of the sea remains disputed.
    • Russiamarker and Kazakhstanmarker 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.
    • Russiamarker and Azerbaijanmarker signed a similar treaty about their common border.
    • Kazakhstanmarker and Azerbaijanmarker signed a similar treaty about their common border.
    • Iranmarker doesn't recognize the bilateral agreements between the other littoral states. Iranmarker continues to insist on a single multilateral agreement between all five littoral states (as the only way to achieve 1/5-th share).
    • The position of Turkmenistanmarker is unclear.

After Russiamarker 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. 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 Azerbaijanmarker and Kazakhstanmarker is covered by their agreements with Russiamarker and also what the conditions are for Volga-access for vessels from Turkmenistanmarker and Iranmarker.

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 services (including train ferries) operate on the Caspian Sea, including:

See also


  1. Lake Profile: Caspian Sea. LakeNet.
  2. Strabo, 11.2.15. Strabo gives a lost work of Eratosthenes as his source.
  3. In system dynamics, a sink is a place where a flow of materials ends its journey, removed from the system.
  4. Comparable evaporite beds underlie the Mediterranean.
  5. 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 28-01-2008.
  6. 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).
  7. Dumont, Henri J. et al. Aquatic Invasions in the Black, Caspian, and Mediterranean Seas (Nato Science Series). Kluwer Academic Publishers. Accessed 28-01-2008.
  8. Kostianoy, Andrey and Aleksey N. Kosarev. The Caspian Sea Environment (Hardcover). Springer. Accessed 28-01-2008.
  9. "General background of the Caspian Sea". Caspian Environment Program. Accessed 29-01-2008.
  11. Caspian Environment Programme
  12. Welcome to the Caspian Sea Level Project Site
  14. Caspian Sea. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 13, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service:
  15. Strabo. Geography. 11.3.1
  16. The Development of the Oil and Gas Industry in Azerbaijan SOCAR
  17. Back to the Future: Britain, Baku Oil and the Cycle of History SOCAR
  18. The Great Gas Game Christian Science Monitor (October 25, 2001)
  19. Russia Tries to Scuttle Proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline Eurasianet
  20. Russia Seeking To Keep Kazakhstan Happy Eurasianet
  21. Nikolaĭ Gavrilovich Kharin, "Vegetation Degradation in Central Asia Under the Impact of Human Activities". Pp. 56-58. Springer, 2002. ISBN 1402003978. On Google Books
  22. Caspian Canal Could Boost Kazakh Trade Business Week, July 9, 2007.
  23. 8.3 The Status of the Caspian Sea - Dividing Natural Resources Between Five Countries - Khoshbakht B.Yusifzade
  24. 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

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