Caspian Sea

دریای کاسپین

ID:13498 Section: Place

Updated:Sunday 12th October 2014

Caspian Sea Definition

(Wikipedia) - Caspian Sea Caspian Sea Coordinates Type Primary inflows Primary outflows Catchment area Basin countries Max. length Max. width Surface area Average depth Max. depth Water volume Residence time Shore length1 Surface elevation Islands Settlements References
The Caspian Sea as captured by the MODIS on the orbiting Terra satellite, June 2003
41°40′N 50°40′E / 41.667°N 50.667°E / 41.667; 50.667Coordinates: 41°40′N 50°40′E / 41.667°N 50.667°E / 41.667; 50.667
Endorheic, Saline, Permanent, Natural

Volga River, Ural River, Kura River, Terek River

Historically: Amu Darya
3,626,000 km2 (1,400,000 sq mi)

Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan

Historically also Uzbekistan
1,030 km (640 mi)
435 km (270 mi)
371,000 km2 (143,200 sq mi)
211 m (690 ft)
1,025 m (3,360 ft)
78,200 km3 (18,800 cu mi)
250 years
7,000 km (4,300 mi)
−28 m (−92 ft)
Baku (Azerbaijan), Rasht (Iran), Aktau (Kazakhstan), Makhachkala (Russia), Türkmenbaşy (Turkmenistan) (see article)
1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.

The Caspian Sea (Russian: Каспийское море, Azerbaijani: Xəzər dənizi, Kazakh: Каспий теңізі, Persian: دریای خزر Daryā-i Xazar, دریای مازندران Daryā-i Māzandarān‎, Turkmen: Hazar deňizi, Georgian: კასპიის ზღვა) is the largest enclosed inland 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 km2 (143,200 sq mi) (not including Garabogazköl Aylagy) and a volume of 78,200 km3 (18,800 cu mi). It is in an endorheic basin (it has no outflows) and is bounded to the northeast by Kazakhstan, to the northwest by Russia, to the west by Azerbaijan, to the south by Iran, and to the southeast by Turkmenistan.

The ancient inhabitants of its coast perceived the Caspian Sea as an ocean, probably because of its saltiness and seeming boundlessness. It has a salinity of approximately 0.12% (12 g/l), about a third of the salinity of most seawater.

  • 1 Etymology
  • 2 Physical characteristics
    • 2.1 Formation
    • 2.2 Geography
    • 2.3 Hydrology
    • 2.4 Environmental degradation
  • 3 Nature
    • 3.1 Fauna
    • 3.2 Flora
  • 4 History
    • 4.1 Cities
      • 4.1.1 Ancient
      • 4.1.2 Modern
  • 5 Oil extraction
    • 5.1 Political issues
  • 6 Territorial status
    • 6.1 Cross-border inflow
  • 7 Transport
    • 7.1 Canals
  • 8 See also
  • 9 References
  • 10 External links


The word Caspian is derived from the name of the Caspi (Aramaic: Kspy, Greek: Kaspioi, Persian: کاسپی‎), ancient people who lived to the south-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 Gates, which is the name of a region in Tehran province of Iran, possibly indicates that they migrated to the south of the sea. The Iranian city Qazvin shares the root of its name with that of the sea. In fact, the traditional Arabic name for the sea itself is Bahr al-Qazwin (Sea of Qazvin).

In classical antiquity among 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: دریای مازندران‎). In Iran, it is also referred as Daryā-i Xazar sometimes. Among Indians it was called Kashyap Sagar. In Turkic-speaking countries it is known as the Khazar Sea. Old Russian sources call it the Khvalyn or Khvalis Sea (Хвалынское море / Хвалисское море) after the name of Khwarezmia. Ancient Arabic sources refer to it as Baḥr Gīlān (بحر جیلان) meaning "the Gilan Sea".

Turkic languages use a consistent nomenclature that is different from the Indo-European languages above. For instance, in Turkmen, the name is Hazar deňizi, in Azeri, it is Xəzər dənizi, and in modern Turkish, it is Hazar denizi. In all these cases, the second word simply means "sea", and the first word refers to the historical Khazars who had a large empire based to the north of the Caspian Sea between the 7th and 10th centuries.

Physical characteristics FormationCaspian Sea in map of Iran provinces in Abbasid Caliphate written in Persian بحر خزر, in English: Bahr-e- Khazar (top)

The Caspian Sea, like the Aral Sea and Black Sea, is a remnant of the ancient Paratethys Sea. It 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 almost dried up, depositing evaporitic sediments like halite that were 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 freshwater 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 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.

GeographyMap of the Caspian Sea, yellow shading indicates Caspian drainage basin. (Since this map was drawn, the adjacent Aral Sea has greatly decreased in size)

The Caspian Sea is the largest inland body of water in the world and accounts for 40 to 44% of the total lacustrine waters of the world. The coastlines of the Caspian are shared by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. The Caspian is divided into three distinct physical regions: the Northern, Middle, and Southern Caspian. The Northern–Middle boundary is the Mangyshlak Threshold, which runs through Chechen Island and Cape Tiub-Karagan. The Middle–Southern boundary is the Apsheron Threshold, a sill of tectonic origin between the Eurasian continent and an oceanic remnant, 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 that cuts it off from the Caspian.

Differences between the three regions are dramatic. The Northern Caspian only includes the Caspian shelf, and is very shallow; it accounts for less than 1% of the total water volume with an average depth of only 5–6 metres (16–20 ft). The sea noticeably drops off towards the Middle Caspian, where the average depth is 190 metres (620 ft). The Southern Caspian is the deepest, with oceanic depths of over 1,000 metres (3,300 ft). The Middle and Southern Caspian account for 33% and 66% of the total water volume, respectively. The northern portion of the Caspian Sea typically freezes in the winter, and in the coldest winters ice forms in the south as well.

Over 130 rivers provide inflow to the Caspian, with the Volga River being the largest. A second affluent, the Ural River, flows in from the north, and the Kura River flows into the sea from the west. In the past, the Amu Darya (Oxus) of Central Asia in the east often changed course to empty into the Caspian through a now-desiccated riverbed called the Uzboy River, as did the Syr Darya farther north. The Caspian also has several small islands; they are primarily located in the north and have a collective land area of roughly 2,000 km2 (770 sq mi). Adjacent to the North Caspian is the Caspian Depression, a low-lying region 27 metres (89 ft) 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 has numerous islands throughout, all of them near the coasts. There are none in the deeper parts of the sea. Ogurja Ada is the largest island. The island is 37 km (23 mi) long, with gazelles roaming freely on it. In the North Caspian, the majority of the islands are small and uninhabited, like the Tyuleniy Archipelago, an Important Bird Area (IBA), although some of them have human settlements.

HydrologyCaspian Sea near Aktau, Mangistau region, Kazakhstan.Caspian Sea Khezeshahr beach

The Caspian has characteristics common to both seas and lakes. It is often listed as the world''s largest lake, although it is not a freshwater lake. It contains about 3.5 times more water, by volume, than all five of North America''s Great Lakes combined. The Caspian was once part of the Tethys Ocean, but 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, perhaps caused by the Amu Darya changing its inflow to the Caspian from the 13th century to the 16th century, caused the coastal towns of Khazaria, such as Atil, to flood. In 2004, the water level was 28 m (92 ft) below sea level.

Over the centuries, Caspian Sea levels have changed in synchrony 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 northwest.

The last short-term sea-level cycle started with a sea-level fall of 3 m (9.84 ft) from 1929 to 1977, followed by a rise of 3 m (9.84 ft) from 1977 until 1995. Since then smaller oscillations have taken place.

Environmental degradation

The Volga River, the largest in Europe, drains 20% of the European land area and is the source of 80% of the Caspian’s inflow. Its lower reaches are heavily developed with numerous unregulated releases of chemical and biological pollutants. Although existing data are 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 fossil fuel extraction and transport activity constitute risks to water quality. Underwater oil and gas pipelines have been constructed or proposed, increasing potential environmental threats.

Vulf, Azerbaijan has been affected by ecological damage because of the petrochemical industry. This has significantly decreased species of marine birds in the area.

Nature FaunaIllustration of two Caspian tigers, extinct since the 1970s.Iran''s northern Caspian Hyrcanian mixed forests are maintained by moisture captured from the Caspian Sea by the Alborz mountain range of Gilan, Iran.

Sturgeon inhabit the Caspian Sea in great numbers, and yield roe (eggs) that are processed into caviar. Overfishing has depleted a number of the historic fisheries including the economic exhaustion of the tuna fishery. 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 zebra mussel and the common carp are native to the Caspian and Black Seas, but have become invasive species elsewhere, when introduced.

The area has given its name to several species, including the Caspian gull and the Caspian tern. The Caspian seal (Pusa caspica) is endemic to the Caspian Sea, and is one of very few seal species that live in inland waters. There are several species and subspecies of fish endemic to the Caspian Sea, including the kutum (also known as the Caspian white fish), Caspian marine shad, 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 trutta caspiensis), which is critically endangered.


Many rare and endemic plant species of Russia are associated with the tidal areas of the Volga delta and riparian forests of the Samur River delta. The shoreline is also a unique refuge for plants adapted to the loose sands of the Central Asian Deserts. The principal limiting factors to successful establishment of plant species are hydrological imbalances within the surrounding deltas, water pollution, and various land reclamation activities. The water level change within the Caspian Sea is an indirect reason for which plants may not get established. This affects aquatic plants of the Volga delta, such as Aldrovanda vesiculosa and the native Nelumbo caspica. About 11 plant species are found in the Samur River delta, including the unique liana forests that date back to the Tertiary period.

The rising level of the Caspian Sea between 1994–96 reduced the number of habitats for rare species of aquatic vegetation. This has been attributed to a general lack of seeding material in newly formed coastal lagoons and water bodies.

HistoryCaspian Sea (Bahr ul-Khazar). Ibn HawqalCaspian Sea map from 1747The 17th-century Cossack rebel and pirate Stenka Razin, on a raid in the Caspian (Vasily Surikov, 1906)

The earliest hominid remains found around the Caspian Sea are from Dmanisi dating back to around 1.8 Ma and yielded a number of skeletal remains of Homo erectus or Homo ergaster. More later evidence for human occupation of the region come from a number of caves in Georgia and Azerbaijan such as Kudaro and Azykh Caves. There is evidence for Lower Palaeolithic human occupation south of the Caspian from western Alburz. These are Ganj Par and Darband Cave sites. Neanderthal remains also have been discovered at a cave site in Georgia. Discoveries in the Huto cave and the adjacent Kamarband cave, near the town of Behshahr, Mazandaran south of the Caspian in Iran, suggest human habitation of the area as early as 11,000 years ago.

The Caspian area is rich in energy resources. Wells were being dug in the region as early as the 10th century. By the 16th century, 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)."

In 1950, the construction of Main Turkmen Canal was started under the orders of Joseph Stalin. The waterway, which would be used for shipping, not irrigation, was to run from Nukus on the Amu-Darya to Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea thus connecting the Amu-Darya and the Aral Sea to the Caspian. However the project was abandoned soon after the death of Stalin. The project was dropped in favor of the Qaraqum Canal, which runs on a more southerly route but does not reach the Caspian.

CitiesBaku, the capital of Azerbaijan is the largest city by the Caspian Sea.Ancient Modern
  • Azerbaijan:
    • Astara
    • Baku
    • Gobustan
    • Khudat
    • Khachmaz
    • Lankaran
    • Masalli
    • Nabran
    • Neftchala
    • Shabran
    • Siyazan
    • Oil Rocks
    • Sumqayit
  • Kazakhstan:
    • Atyrau (formerly Guriev)
    • Aqtau (formerly Shevchenko)
  • Russia:
    • Astrakhan
    • Dagestanskiye Ogni
    • Derbent
    • Izberbash
    • Kaspiysk
    • Makhachkala
  • Turkmenistan:
    • Türkmenbaşy (formerly Krasnovodsk)
    • Hazar (formerly Çeleken)
    • Esenguly
    • Garabogaz (formerly Bekdaş)
Oil extractionOil pipelines in the Caspian region. September 2002.

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 were 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 century, Baku became known as the "black gold capital", and many skilled workers and specialists flocked to the city.

By the turn of the 20th century, Baku was the center of international oil industry. In 1920, when the Bolsheviks captured Azerbaijan, all private property – including oil wells and factories – was confiscated. Afterwards, the republic''s entire oil industry came under the control of the Soviet Union. 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 2006.

Political issues

Many of the islands along the Azerbaijani coast continue to hold significant geopolitical and economic importance because of the potential oil reserves found nearby. Bulla Island, Pirallahı Island, and Nargin - which was used as a former Soviet base and is the largest island in the Baku bay, all hold oil reserves.

The 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. 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.

US diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks revealed that BP covered up a gas leak and blowout incident in September 2008 at an operating gas field in the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshi area of the Azerbaijan Caspian Sea.

Territorial statusSouthern Caspian Energy Prospects (portion of Iran). Country Profile 2004Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan.

Negotiations related to the demarcation of the Caspian Sea have been going on for nearly a decade among the states bordering the Caspian – Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The status of the Caspian Sea is the key problem. 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 Black Sea and Baltic Sea) all depend upon the outcomes of negotiations. Access to the Volga River is particularly important for the landlocked states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. This concerns Russia, because this potential traffic would utilise its 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.

All five Caspian littoral states maintain naval forces on the sea. It should be mentioned that Russia got the bulk of the former Soviet Caspian military fleet and has the most powerful military presence in the sea. Fewer assets were assigned to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

According to a treaty signed between Iran (Persia) and the Soviet Union, the Caspian Sea is technically a lake and was divided into two sectors (Persian and Soviet), but the resources (then mainly fish) were commonly shared. The line between the two sectors was considered an international border in a common lake, like Lake Albert. The Soviet sector was sub-divided into the four littoral republics'' administrative sectors.

Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have bilateral agreements with each other based on median lines. Because of their use by the three nations, median lines seem to be the most likely method of delineating territory in future agreements. However, Iran insists on a single, multilateral agreement between the five nations (as this is the only way for it to achieve a one-fifth share of the sea). Azerbaijan is at odds with Iran over some oil fields that both states claim. Occasionally, Iranian patrol boats have fired 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).

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 the sea.

Cross-border inflow

UNECE recognizes several rivers that cross international borders which flow into the Caspian Sea. These are:

River Countries
Atrek River IR, TM
Kura River AM, AZ, GE, IR, TR
Ural River KZ, RU
Samur River AZ, RU
Sulak River GE, RU
Terek River GE, RU

Although the Caspian Sea is endorheic, its main tributary, the 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 Sea.

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

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

  • a line between Türkmenbaşy, Turkmenistan (formerly Krasnovodsk) and Baku.
  • a line between Baku and Aktau.
  • several lines between cities in Iran and Russia.

The ferries are mostly used for cargo, only the Baku – Aktau and Baku – Türkmenbaşy routes accept passengers.


As an endorheic basin, the Caspian Sea basin has no natural connection with the ocean. Since the medieval period, traders reached the Caspian via a number of portages that connected the Volga and its tributaries with the Don (which flows into the Sea of Azov) and various rivers that flow into the Baltic. Primitive canals connecting the Volga Basin with the Baltic have been constructed as early as the early 18th century; since then, a number of canal projects have been completed. The two modern canal system connecting the Volga basin with the ocean are the Volga–Baltic Waterway and the Volga–Don Canal.

The proposed Pechora-Kama Canal was a project that was widely discussed between the 1930s and 1980s. Shipping was a secondary consideration; its main goal was to redirect some of the water of the Pechora River (which flows into the Arctic Ocean) 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. In 1971 some construction experiments were conducted using nuclear explosions.

In June 2007, in order to boost his oil-rich country''s access to markets, Kazakhstan''s President Nursultan Nazarbaev proposed a 700-kilometre (435-mile) link between the Caspian and Black seas. 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 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.

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