At 370,000 square kilometers of the Caspian (Darya-ye Khazar) is five times the size of Lake Superior. That makes it, by far, the largest lake in the world. Or does it? Its coastal states (Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan) can not decide if the Caspian is a lake at all. Maybe it’s a ‘sea’. That’s more than small semantics. In international legal terms, each nation deserves its own territorial segment of whatever ‘is’ confined. But with a “lake,” the following resources must be shared equally among all riverine states. Thus, the exact definition has vast economic implications given immensely valuable Caspian marine deposits. The debate continues.
The Caspian has many environmental concerns. Mud volcanoes under the sea and oil vents add to the darkness of the industrial wastewater that flows through its tributary rivers, particularly the Volga. And at 26.5 m below sea level, there is no way out of the pollution that can escape. Pollution along with climate change are probably to blame for the increasingly severe algal blooms, the large annual growths of water-weed surface which, in the summer of 2005, covers an astonishing 20,000 square kilometers of the Caspian. Scientists are also concerned about the appearance of Mnemiopsis Leydiyi (a comb jellyfish) whose explosive 1990 Black Sea breeding had threatened the fish populations there. All this, along with the excess of intensive fishing is a particular concern for the slow-growing Caspian Sea sturgeon, which produces 95% of the world’s caviar, but now faces possible extinction.
Between 1977 and 1994, the Caspian sea levels increased an amazing 15 cm to 20 cm per year. Those beaches that survived are mostly gray and ugly, but local tourists do not seem to care too much. When the Iranians say how wonderful the coast is, they could mean all the precious rain. Rasht incorporates raindrops in the calligraphy of his welcome sign. There are even restaurants on the beach called Barun (Rain). For the people of the desert plateau, regular rains of the Caspian Sea coast should look exotic. But it is still worth a visit to see the cities and industries that have lived along its coasts for thousands of local years.