Trends in groundwater storage from NASA's GRACE satellite (2003-2013). Graphic: Richey, et al., 2015

Irvine, California, 16 June 2015 (UCI) – Two new studies led by UC Irvine using data from NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites show that human consumption is rapidly draining some of its largest groundwater basins, yet there is little to no accurate data about how much water remains in them.

The result is that significant segments of Earth’s population are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out, the researchers conclude. The findings appear today in Water Resources Research. [“Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE” and “Uncertainty in global groundwater storage estimates in a total groundwater stress framework”.]

“Available physical and chemical measurements are simply insufficient,” said UCI professor and principal investigator Jay Famiglietti, who is also the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Given how quickly we are consuming the world’s groundwater reserves, we need a coordinated global effort to determine how much is left.”

The studies are the first to characterize groundwater losses via data from space, using readings generated by NASA’s twin GRACE satellites that measure dips and bumps in Earth’s gravity, which is affected by the weight of water.

For the first paper, researchers examined the planet’s 37 largest aquifers between 2003 and 2013. The eight worst off were classified as overstressed, with nearly no natural replenishment to offset usage. Another five aquifers were found, in descending order, to be extremely or highly stressed, depending upon the level of replenishment in each – still in trouble but with some water flowing back into them.

The most overburdened are in the world’s driest areas, which draw heavily on underground water. Climate change and population growth are expected to intensify the problem.

“What happens when a highly stressed aquifer is located in a region with socioeconomic or political tensions that can’t supplement declining water supplies fast enough?” asked the lead author on both studies, Alexandra Richey, who conducted the research as a UCI doctoral student. “We’re trying to raise red flags now to pinpoint where active management today could protect future lives and livelihoods.”

The research team – which included co-authors from NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Taiwan University and UC Santa Barbara – found that the Arabian Aquifer System, an important water source for more than 60 million people, is the most overstressed in the world.

The Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin in northern Africa is third. California’s Central Valley, utilized heavily for agriculture and suffering rapid depletion, was slightly better off but still labeled highly stressed in the first study.

“As we’re seeing in California right now, we rely much more heavily on groundwater during drought,” Famiglietti said. “When examining the sustainability of a region’s water resources, we absolutely must account for that dependence.”

In a companion paper published today in the same journal, the scientists conclude that the total remaining volume of the world’s usable groundwater is poorly known, with often widely varying estimates, but is likely far less than rudimentary estimates made decades ago.

By comparing their satellite-derived groundwater loss rates to what little data exists on groundwater availability, they found major discrepancies in projected “time to depletion.” In the overstressed Northwest Sahara Aquifer System, for example, this fluctuated between 10 and 21,000 years.

“We don’t actually know how much is stored in each of these aquifers. Estimates of remaining storage might vary from decades to millennia,” Richey said. “In a water-scarce society, we can no longer tolerate this level of uncertainty, especially since groundwater is disappearing so rapidly.”

The study notes that the dearth of groundwater is already leading to significant ecological damage, including depleted rivers, declining water quality, and subsiding land.

Groundwater aquifers are typically located in soil or deeper rock layers beneath Earth’s surface. The depth and thickness of many make it tough and costly to drill to or otherwise reach bedrock and learn where the moisture bottoms out. But it has to be done, according to the authors.

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A third of the world’s biggest groundwater basins are in distress


ABSTRACT: Groundwater is an increasingly important water supply source globally. Understanding the amount of groundwater used versus the volume available is crucial to evaluate future water availability. We present a groundwater stress assessment to quantify the relationship between groundwater use and availability in the world's 37 largest aquifer systems. We quantify stress according to a ratio of groundwater use to availability, which we call the Renewable Groundwater Stress ratio. The impact of quantifying groundwater use based on nationally reported groundwater withdrawal statistics is compared to a novel approach to quantify use based on remote sensing observations from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission. Four characteristic stress regimes are defined: Overstressed, Variable Stress, Human-dominated Stress, and Unstressed. The regimes are a function of the sign of use (positive or negative) and the sign of groundwater availability, defined as mean annual recharge. The ability to mitigate and adapt to stressed conditions, where use exceeds sustainable water availability, is a function of economic capacity and land use patterns. Therefore, we qualitatively explore the relationship between stress and anthropogenic biomes. We find that estimates of groundwater stress based on withdrawal statistics are unable to capture the range of characteristic stress regimes, especially in regions dominated by sparsely populated biome types with limited cropland. GRACE-based estimates of use and stress can holistically quantify the impact of groundwater use on stress, resulting in both greater magnitudes of stress and more variability of stress between regions.

Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE


ABSTRACT: Groundwater is a finite resource under continuous external pressures. Current unsustainable groundwater use threatens the resilience of aquifer systems and their ability to provide a long-term water source. Groundwater storage is considered to be a factor of groundwater resilience, although the extent to which resilience can be maintained has yet to be explored in depth. In this study, we assess the limit of groundwater resilience in the world's largest groundwater systems with remote sensing observations. The Total Groundwater Stress (TGS) ratio, defined as the ratio of total storage to the groundwater depletion rate, is used to explore the timescales to depletion in the world's largest aquifer systems and associated groundwater buffer capacity. We find that the current state of knowledge of large-scale groundwater storage has uncertainty ranges across orders of magnitude that severely limit the characterization of resilience in the study aquifers. Additionally, we show that groundwater availability, traditionally defined as recharge and re-defined in this study as total storage, can alter the systems that are considered to be stressed versus unstressed. We find that remote sensing observations from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment can assist in providing such information at the scale of a whole aquifer. For example, we demonstrate that a groundwater depletion rate in the Northwest Sahara Aquifer System of 2.69 ± 0.8 km3 per year would result in the aquifer being depleted to 90% of its total storage in as few as 50 years given an initial storage estimate of 70 km3 [Swezey, 1999].

Uncertainty in global groundwater storage estimates in a total groundwater stress framework

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