Rebirth Island and the Sensitivity of Location

The Aral Sea has been shrinking rapidly since the Nineteen Sixties, as I mentioned a while back on the Mesofacts blog. But there’s something I didn’t previously touch upon: the issue of Rebirth Island in its center.

Over the weekend, my wife and I were looking at an old Rand McNally atlas I had first received back when I was in middle school. In it, the Aral Sea is large and liquid and doing just fine. And in its center is the island of Vozrozhdeniya, or Rebirth Island. It stood out to us because there was a national border running directly through its center, dividing it between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

But in recent years, due to the vanishing Aral Sea, the island is no longer an island. It first became a peninsula in 2001, and is now an undifferentiated part of the mainland. The name “Rebirth Island” now rings in one’s ears as a sad taunt about its nonexistence.

But here’s the wrinkle: during the Cold War, the Soviet Union used Rebirth Island as a laboratory for biological warfare. While the lab is now abandoned, it was located there due to its isolated position. And it was indeed perfectly placed, until irrigation decisions “relocated” a carefully isolated highly dangerous base into the middle of a vast open plain.

A lesson from applied complexity: when constructing a top-secret base while also engaging in irrigation projects at the same time, recognize that they can occasionally work at cross-purposes.